Be Careful What You Wish For ~ February 24, 2019 ~ John 5:1-9a
We are in the gospel of John this morning, chapter 5. Let me set the context, let me set the scene first to give you an idea of what’s going on. Jesus had been staying in the town of Capernaum. He did a lot of His ministry in Capernaum. He was preaching throughout Galilee, throughout the surrounding towns, when He came across Matthew, the tax collector – and to everyone’s surprise, He called Matthew to be one of His disciples. Tax collectors were considered to be despised, no differently than tax collectors today, actually. (They’re probably very nice people. When you’re out to dinner sometimes with someone you just met – “So, what do you do?” “I work for the IRS.” How do you think that goes over? Usually probably not very well.)
Anyway, tax collectors back then were really hated because not only did they work for the Roman Government, the occupying government, they also extorted from you beyond what you owed for their own personal gain. Tax collectors were supremely hated. Matthew was a tax collector. Jesus called him – a hated, despised tax collector – to be one of His disciples. The worst of the worst, to be one of His disciples. He then leaves Galilee and heads to the holy city, the City of David, and our reading this morning takes place in the City of David, Jerusalem. If you would join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the word of God. Let us pray.
Lord, upon the pages of this book is your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So, after preaching in all the surrounding towns, after calling Matthew to be one of His disciples…
Afterward Jesus returned to Jerusalem for
one of the Jewish holy days. Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool
of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Crowds of sick people – blind, lame, or
paralyzed – lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight
years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked
him, “Would you like to get well?”
“I can’t sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up.”
I’ll explain that in a minute.
“Someone always gets there ahead of me.”
Jesus told him…
“We don’t need no stinkin’ pool!” No, sorry. That’s Pastor Adam’s version. Jesus told him…
“Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”
Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking!
What an amazing story, but there is so many things – I’ve said this so many times, folks. No matter how many times you read the Scriptures, one of the reasons they call it the “Living Word” is that it always has something new to reveal to you. I don’t know, over the past 22 years of pastoral ministry, how many times I’ve preached on this, but I do know that the Lord showed me something new when I wrote this message.
First of all, a crowd of sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed people were all waiting to see if they might be the next person healed at the pool of Bethesda. One of them was that man who had been lying there – for thirty-eight years he had been coming. That image, to me, reminded me of our very first mission trip that we took to Haiti back in 2012.
In 2012, a mission team of four from South Congregational Church went to the country of Haiti with the intent of meeting several pastors and several congregations, kind of interviewing to see if we could find a fit to be a sister church to us back here in the states. Well, we tagged along with a medical team, so we went to four or five different cities, four or five different churches with this medical team. Now, honestly, anyone who’s in the medical profession or knows anything about the medical profession, you’d be embarrassed that we called this a medical team. All we did was hand out vitamins, Rolaids, Tylenol. We did do some Malaria medication, some Piperazine for the kids, which kills the worms. Every six months the kids need to have a drink of Piperazine because they get worms. But the amount of real medical care that we could offer was so minimal. But these folks, a good portion of them, could go their whole lives without ever seeing a doctor, a nurse, or any level of healthcare. So, when we show up, we’re like the Johns Hopkins Institute as far as they’re concerned!
So, we were set up in this little village called Bay Jacmel, which was a very mountainous region of Haiti, and as we’re doing our thing, suddenly, down from the mountain comes a plastic chair, just like you have at your house. And in the chair is this little old man who couldn’t walk. So, three of his friends carried him down the mountainside, because he wanted to see a doctor. He wanted to get healed. I couldn’t imagine that that was easy, you know, carrying someone in one of these plastic chairs. Do me a favor. Would you be the little old man and sit in that chair? Kyle, Jeremy, and Frank, would you be these three guys and just carry him down the aisle? And then when you get to the end you can carry him back. There we go. Now you can dump him out – no, just kidding. Thank you.
Now, we just had a carpeted, smooth, straight surface. These guys did that down a mountainside! I mean, it was a huge incline, and all I could think of when I was reading this verse of the man lying there next to the pool of Bethesda was that he couldn’t get there on his own. So, this guy couldn’t get there on his own either, and I knew once they brought him to see the doctor, after he was done, they were going to have to turn around and bring him back up the mountain, because he couldn’t get there on his own. It’s just the image that popped into my mind when reading this verse, this particular time.
I mean, what were all of these people waiting for? They were waiting for the pool of Bethesda to bubble up. What’s with the bubbling up? There is a Jewish tradition that said an angel would periodically come down from heaven and stir up the waters of the pool of Bethesda, and when it bubbled up, the first person to get into the waters then would be healed. So, they were all waiting around the pool of Bethesda just for that moment when the water started to bubble, so they could get there and be healed. That’s what he was waiting for.
Now, I don’t know if this man was thirty-eight years old – if he was in this condition his whole life – or if he got injured or sick or ill later in life when he was twenty or thirty, which would make him fifty or sixty. The Bible doesn’t say one way or another, we just know he’s been there for thirty-eight years. What do we know about this man? Well, this is one of the first things that this story, this time, revealed to me. One thing we do know: God does not promise us a life free of pain and suffering. There’s a whole bunch of people at that pool of Bethesda waiting for healing. This man was there for thirty-eight years. So, God does not promise us a lifetime free of pain and suffering.
Now, I feel like over the last few weeks, I have said that a lot. I don’t know why. I can only attribute it to the Holy Spirit, He wants me to say that. So, I say it. I thought, maybe it’s because at times we need to be reminded that we can get so frustrated, so disappointed, so angry even, when God does not reply to our prayers as we believe He should, as quickly as we believe He should. Thirty-eight years.
Now, look, we are an imperfect congregation, made up of imperfect people, and you have the world’s most imperfect pastor. I am not saying that I have not been in that “why me?” camp at some point in my life. I know I have. I’m trying to be better. I’m trying. I’m trying to say, more often, “why not me?” I mean, when I think of people in challenging situations, why wouldn’t I ask that question? Why them and not me? Am I a better person than John Merrick? Do you know who John Merrick is? He was born in the late 1800s, and he had a disease we call “Elephant Man’s Disease.” They still to this day don’t know exactly what it was that John Merrick had, but why didn’t I get that? Why did John? Am I a better person than John Merrick?
Am I in some way holier than Joni Eareckson Tada? Or Nick Vujicic? Joni Eareckson Tada is a paraplegic, lives her life in a wheelchair. Nick Vujicic, if you have not heard of Nick Vujicic, I heartily encourage you to go on YouTube and just type in “evangelist with no arms and no legs,” and listen to him speak. It’s unbelievable. But I think of Joni Eareckson Tada who can’t walk, who can’t use her limbs; I think of Nick Vujicic, who doesn’t have any limbs to use. Am I in some way holier than them? Why do I have two arms and two legs, and full use of them? Perhaps I should spend a little more time counting my blessings. That’s what I was hearing, or that’s what was being told to me. That was the first thing that jumped out at me. The reality is, God does not promise a life free of challenges. What He is saying is basically, “Because of sin, this is a fallen world, and until I return and put everything right again, there will be pain and suffering. What I do promise you is you will not be alone in your pain and suffering. I will walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death. When you see one set of footprints in the sand, that’s when I was carrying you.” That’s what Jesus is saying.
See, that phrase “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” I think that too many people ascribe that specifically to that moment when we leave this world and transition to eternity. It just talks about the passing through, death into life again. I would submit to you, I think it means more than that. Yes, of course it’s talking about that moment, that journey that we all must one day make alone. But I think during the course of our life, we go through many circumstances, many ways which seem like a valley of the shadow of death to us, and God is saying, Jesus is saying, “I will walk with you. I will not promise you that you won’t have valleys of the shadow of death, but I will walk with you through them.”
So, the first thing the story said to me this time around, is that God does not promise a life free of pain and suffering; He promises to walk through it with us.
This story said something else to me, something about this man in particular. Talk about faith. He has been coming to the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years (and I get frustrated when God takes more than seventy-two hours to answer my prayers). Imagine that, thirty-eight years he’s been coming, he’s been hoping, he’s been praying, he’s been waiting. Thirty-eight years, and yet we get frustrated when God doesn’t answer my problems or get me out of my predicament right away! Our faith starts to waver. Thirty-eight years. And how about this? He can’t walk, right? We know that about him. That’s the reason he has been unable to get into the water when it is bubbling. He is unable to walk. Well then how did he get to the sheep gate to begin with? How did he even get to the pool? Did you ever think about that? What does that tell us about this man?
Well, it says that someone, some people have been faithfully bringing this man to the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years. What does that say about him? We can only guess. What kind of man must he have been? Do you think he’s irritable or angry or argumentative or sullen or demanding? Would you take time out of your day for thirty-eight years to help some cranky old crone? I wouldn’t. What kind of person elicits such devotion? I couldn’t help but think of that when I thought of the Haitian man in the chair. What kind of guy must he have been to have three people be willing to carry him down a mountain and back up again? That’s what the Holy Spirit revealed to me this time.
I mean, some people might say that this man has every reason to be ill-tempered; but apparently, he was not. Neither are Joni Eareckson Tada or Nick Vujicic. If you listen to them speak, they aren’t angry. They aren’t sullen. They are some of the most powerful evangelists I’ve ever heard. We had the pleasure a couple years ago at the WIHS banquet where Joni Eareckson Tada was the speaker. I got to hear her live, in person. She’s an amazing person. Everything is done for her by her husband. What kind of man is he?
No, Joni Eareckson Tada, Nick Vujicic, and by all accounts, John Merrick, the Elephant Man – by all accounts, he was a man who was chipper. He was positive, he was jovial. He was friendly. He was intelligent.
So, I made myself a new rule. I’m trying to stick by it. It’s not easy. But I said to myself, “you know what? When you feel like complaining about your situation (whatever it may be), here’s my rule. If I wouldn’t complain to Joni Eareckson Tada or Nick Vujicic’s face about my issue, then I should probably keep my mouth shut.” I’m trying. It’s not easy.
But this man had been waiting for thirty-eight years, and then we read when Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time – Jesus knew that he had been waiting for thirty-eight years. He knew that because He’s God. Nonetheless, what does He ask him? “Would you like to get well?” That’s kind of an odd question, don’t you think? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Lord, but he’s been coming to the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years! Why would you ask such an obvious question?
And you might come across that when you read Scripture too. Every once in a while, you say, “Why is Jesus asking that? That doesn’t make sense to me.” I think perhaps because maybe it’s not so obvious. Maybe these questions are deeper than they look on the surface. So, I began to think. What is it that Jesus was asking? Of course he wants to get well, but why would He ask that question?
Well, this is what I came up with. I confess that I do get a little bit irritable myself when I have to listen to celebrities whine and moan and groan about all the attention that comes with fame. Wait just a New York Minute, here. Didn’t you all want more than anything else to be famous? And now you’re complaining? Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
And then I thought, it’s easy to point fingers. Did you ever notice that, how easy it is to point fingers? How easy it is to point out what somebody else is doing wrong? I mean, when we were young, all we wanted, more than anything else, was to be an adult, right? Remember those days? We all wanted to be grownups. We wanted to be able to make our own decisions. We wanted to be able to go wherever we wanted to go, we wanted to be able to do whatever we felt like doing whenever we felt like doing it. And then one day, it happens. We are on our own. We have a job. We have our own place to live. YAY! And then, these things called bills start arriving in the mail. Rent. Electric bill. Heat bill. Light bill. Cable bill. I don’t know, I used to just be able to turn on the TV and it came on! It was magic! The internet. I’m paying for my own cell phone now. I have a car payment, and with a car payment you have to get car insurance. And what the heck is this excise tax on my car? I have to pay my town for the privilege of owning a car? And what exactly is fabric softener? Or an iron?
Suddenly, our lives as teenagers didn’t look so bad anymore. Be careful what you wish for, folks! Or young people! Live it up as long as you can. Maybe that’s why we’re not leaving the house until we’re 28 now. I don’t know. Somebody told! Somebody let it out! Adulthood? Be careful what you wish for.
So, even though this man has been immobile for nearly forty years, think about it. He has always had someone ready and willing to care for him. Obviously, someone has been cooking his meals. Somebody put a roof over his head – he couldn’t work. Someone has been carrying him to the pool of Bethesda for decades now, and if he’s healed, that’s all going to change. As tough a situation as he might find himself in, after thirty-eight years, there may be a sort of routine happening here, a sense of comfort in your situation. All of a sudden, he’s going to need to start doing things for himself. This man will begin to hear for the very first time, “Get up and go get it yourself! What, are your legs broken?” He hasn’t had to worry about that up to this point.
Jesus also knew that he would come under attack. If you continue to read this chapter, if you go home this afternoon and finish up chapter five, you’ll find that he was confronted by those who charged him with breaking the Sabbath. Why? Because he was carrying his mat. Isn’t that amazing? Guy is at a pool for thirty-eight years wanting to be healed. All of a sudden, they see him walk by carrying his mat and they’re all like, “Oh! Breaking the Sabbath! Carrying his mat!” They’re mad at him for breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat, no one’s going, “Holy smokes, he’s carrying his mat!” And I think that is the central point that God wants us to pay attention to here, that Jesus says in this story. Jesus is asking not just this man, He’s asking every single one of us: “Do you want to get well? Do you want to be forgiven of your sin and identified as a Christian? Because that is when attacks will begin.”
blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say
all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.”
Why would Matthew say that? Because obviously people are being mocked, persecuted, lied about, and all sorts of evil things are being said because you are a follower of Jesus.
“And all nations will hate you because you
are my followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved.”
So, you want to be identified as a Christian? Be careful what you wish for, I guess, because the road isn’t always going to be smooth.
Do I want to be forgiven of my sins and identified as a Christian even though I know that my life will not be all rainbows and unicorns? That on occasion I will still experience pain and suffering, persecution, disappointment, failure? That I will come under attack? Absolutely. Without question, because this is temporary. This is temporary. Do you know what the average life expectancy is in the United States of America? For women, it’s 81.1 years. That’s the average. We are blessed here at South Congregational Church to have a lot of ladies who are above average! For men, it’s 76.1 years. Does anybody know why men die first? Because we want to! Please, Lord, take me now! No, just kidding. I’m just teasing. The overall average is 78.6 years, so roughly, we spend about 80 years here. Then we face eternity, and I guarantee you, that’s much longer.
So, where will you spend eternity? That is the central question. I know where I’ll be – not because I am a better person than John Merrick (I assure you, I probably am not). Not because I’m holier than Joni Eareckson Tada or Nick Vujicic (because chances are, I am not). But I know where I’m going to be, because I – in the words of Job, who knows a thing or two about suffering:
“But as for me, I know that my Redeemer
lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last.
And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!
I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!”
I know where I’m going to be. Do you want to get well? Do I want to get well, Jesus? Is that your question? Do I want to be forgiven of my sin and identified as a Christian? Without a doubt. Even if there is some pain and suffering and persecution, because I know I will be spending eternity in that place where there is no more death, or sorrow, or crying, or pain – all of those things will be gone forever. I know, and if you don’t know, you are welcome to join me. All you have to do is just what I told the kids – accept what Jesus Christ did on the cross as Lord. Receive Him as your Savior. Pick up your mat and your cross (any persecution that may lie ahead for you) and follow Him. Don’t wait. Make that decision today.
I like to say to people, if you’re not sure, you’re not! So, if you’re not sure, see me after church. I’ll be glad to welcome you into the family of God, into eternity. Not because of anything I’m going to say, but because of something He did. Make that choice. Accept Christ. That way you will be guaranteed a room prepared especially for you in heaven.
If you have already made that decision, then I encourage you to live like it! Think about Joni Eareckson Tada, Nick Vujicic and John Merrick, and focus on how blessed you are! And how you are going to live eternally with God in heaven. Seriously, when everything else is taken under consideration, what am I complaining about? I am so blessed. If you believe you are so blessed, would you stand and pray with me?