December 26, 2004 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
“Jesus Changes Everything”
Part 5 – “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?”
Rev. Jeff Chapman ~
1Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3Here a great number of disabled people used to lie–the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.[b] 5One who was there had been an invalid for thirtyeight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
7“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
8Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, 10and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat."
11But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”
12So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
13The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
14Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
* * * * * * * *
As the story goes, Jesus went one day to Jerusalem for a festival. We’re not told what the occasion was, only that there was to be a feast. While on his way, Jesus goes past a famous site there in Jerusalem called the Pool of Bethesda.
In those days, this pool was famous, in part, because of a superstition. People believed that an angel would periodically fly down from heaven and stir up the waters of the pool, and that this gave the waters some mysterious healing power. So that if you were sick or disabled in some way, and you could be the first one to get yourself into the water while it was still moving, you could be healed completely.
Sounds crazy to us, right? People don’t have these kinds of superstitions today, right? Let me remind you that a grilled-cheese sandwich, which some people say bears the image of the Virgin Mary, sold last month on e-bay for $28,000. The woman who sold the half-eaten sandwich told CNN, "I'll miss her greatly because she was a comfort to me in times when it wasn't so easy." Even today – right? - we look for healing and comfort in all kinds of places. It was no different back then.
Because of this superstition, we are told that this pool was a gathering place for all kinds of disabled people, the sick, the blind, the lame, those who were paralyzed. And can you imagine the scene when the waters were stirred up. Have you ever gone out to the canals around here to feed the ducks? You throw a piece of bread into the middle of 20 or 30 ducks and you get a sense of what this pool might have looked like when the water moved.
Now imagine you were paralyzed, or blind. If there was no one there to help you into the pool you would always miss your chance. You could lay their for years! What a discouragingly helpless situation it must have been for some of those people.
We’re told that one of them was this man who had been an invalid for 38 years. That, by the way, is exactly how old I am. And I get frustrated when I’m sick longer than a week. I can’t begin to imagine being invalid for my whole life. Who knows how long this man had been there beside that pool. And he was utterly helpless. If nobody came to help him, his situation would never, ever change.
Well Jesus wanders by. And apparently this man stands out to Jesus in the crowd. Who knows, maybe he was the most pitiful of the bunch. When Jesus finds out that he has been like that for 38 years, he goes up to him and asks him this question, “Do you want to get well?”
Now, does this seem like a strange question to you? I can see how it might. And I can almost picture this man giving Jesus a sarcastic answer, “No. I don’t want to get well. I like being crippled. I’m just sitting here by this pool because I like the view!” If I was this guy, that might be how I would answer.
But think about it. After so many years of living with his condition, isn’t it possible that this man didn’t really want to return to face the challenges of a normal, healthy life. Do you understand what I mean when I say that?
Do you recognize that there are instances when people, if given the choice, would really prefer to stay in the “disabled” circumstances in which they find themselves. Either they have just gotten used to life that way. Or they’re not willing to make the changes that would be required to move towards healing. Or they are lazy. I’m not making generalizations here, but you do recognize that this is true with some people. And so Jesus’ question isn’t so strange after all. “Do you want to get well? Do you want help?”
But this man replies, “Yes, I want to get well. But when the angel comes to stir up the water, and I try to get down into the pool, somebody always beats me to it.” He’s willing. He’s just not able.
Now, there is something I want to point out here. This man’s response makes it clear that he doesn’t have any idea who it is standing in front of him. As far as he knows this is just another man on the street, perhaps a little more curious than most.
But standing before him is the Son of God, the giver of all life, the great healer. With just a word, he has the power to not only make his body completely healthy, he can also heal his mind and his heart and his spirit. Do you think if this man knew who Jesus was that he would still be concerned with getting into the pool?
It makes me wonder, how many times is Jesus right there in front of us, full of all the power and grace we can ever imagine or need. Power to heal, or to give guidance, or to provide answers. And our attention is elsewhere.
Let me ask you, what is an area of your life right now where you need healing, or direction, or wisdom? Certainly you have at least one. Well, where, or to whom, are you turning to for help? Some of us won’t turn anywhere but ourselves, we’re that prideful, that stubborn. We might not put it this way, but we really do believe that God helps those who help themselves. Are you one of those people who hates to ask for help from anybody, even from God?
Where do you turn in your life when you need help?
We get sick and we turn to doctors. Nothing wrong with that. I visited my doctor this week, in fact. But is medicine, ultimately, the source of healing?
As another example, our marriages get in trouble and we turn to marriage books and family therapists. Again, nothing wrong with those. Both can be a great help in our families. But does psychotherapy ultimately have the answer to heal our broken relationships, to bring forgiveness where there has been betrayal, to bring love where there has been hate?
You get the point. Is it possible that in some area of your life you are looking everywhere else for help when the greatest source of help in the universe is right in front of you? For this man by the pool that day, the creator of the universe is standing right there in front of him and yet he continues to bank on some superstition about this pool to help him out. Sort of like some of us some of the time. Right?
Now here is where the story, I think, really gets interesting. Even though this man has no idea who Jesus is. Even though doesn’t expect his help. He doesn’t even ask for it. Even though, unlike other healings in the gospels, this guy makes no demonstration of faith whatsoever. Still, Jesus says to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” He heals him just like that. And the man gets up, and for the first time in 38 years, he walks.
Let me pause her for a moment and ask you to consider what this story teaches us. Sometimes, maybe a lot more than we ever realize, God helps those who can’t help themselves. In fact, as this story shows us, God even helps those who have no idea that he is the one who can help them. This guy isn’t healed because of his faith. He isn’t healed because he deserves it in some way. He isn’t healed because of his righteousness. He isn’t even healed because he asks. Why is he healed? Why is this man healed? Simply because of God’s grace.
It’s been said, “Justice is getting what we deserve. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting better than we deserve.” This guy gets pure grace.
If you have been saved, isn’t this also what you have received from God through Jesus Christ? Do you remember how Paul puts it in Romans 5? In verses 8 he says, “God shows us how much he loves us in this, while we were still sinners – in other words, while we had our backs turned to God, while we wanted nothing to do with God – it was then that Christ died for us.” This is so poignantly demonstrated on the cross when Jesus looks down at the people who are seething in hate towards, the people who have just tortured and crucified him, and he prays, “Father forgive them, for the know now what they do.”
Do you imagine that Christ comes to us today in our lives only when we clean ourselves up first, only when we demonstrate enough faith, only when we seek him out first? No. He always takes the initiative. Because of his love for us he always comes to us first. In fact, he died for us before we were even born. Do you think that God had you and me in mind when he went to the cross? I believe he did.
A lot of us don’t get this. In a recent survey, Americans were asked if this idea or phrase, that “God helps those who help themselves,” was found in the Bible. 53% said they were certain that it was. Another 22% weren’t positive, but thought it was in there somewhere. Well, not only is that phrase not found in the Bible, the whole idea goes against what scripture teaches. Proverbs 28:26 says, “Those who trust in themselves are fools.” Scripture clearly teaches that the initiative is never with us and always with God. That’s why it’s called salvation!
Now I can see how somebody might object, “How can you say that? I’m not totally incapable. I work hard at my job and accomplish a lot. I have studied hard in school and I’ve earned the grades I have received. I’ve done a pretty good job raising my kids. I’m in good shape physically because I take care of myself.”
And yes, to some extent I would have to agree. God has given each of us resources, and if we use those resources with wisdom and determination, there are some things in life that we can accomplish, if only temporarily, even if we totally ignore God. But can you see that there are also situations when we are completely helpless. There are some circumstances in life that, unless God intervenes, there is nothing we can do about it. Can you think of some that you have faced? At the very least, consider your spiritual life. Unless God intervened as he did in Christ, was there anything you or I could ever do to help ourselves to salvation? No, there wasn’t a thing we could do.
But we forget that.
Have you heard the story about the turtle who lived in Minnesota and decided that he wanted to go to Florida for the winter? He knew he could never walk all the way, so he talked to the two ducks who shared his pond since they were better equipped for long-distance travel. And so he found a piece of thick cord and persuaded each of them to take an end while he, with his strong jaws, held on in the center.
Well, it was a pleasant flight and everything was going as planned until someone on the ground looked up and said with admiration, "Who in the world thought of that?" And that prideful little turtle, who had to take credit, just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
The healing by the pool in Bethesda reminds us that there are times in life when we can’t help ourselves. And that there are times when, if we are helped, we can’t take the credit. There are times when only God can help us, if only we are willing to be helped.
Before I finish, let me address one more question that may be in your minds.
I can see how some people might read this story and come away with anger or resentment. “You say Jesus healed that guy just out of compassion and grace. Well, unlike that guy, I believe in Jesus. And I prayed for healing at one point, I prayed desperately, but it didn’t come.” Or it hasn’t come. And we have to acknowledge that there are times when we know we need help, or those we love need help, and we turn to God with all the faith we can muster, and nothing seems to happen. Nobody picks up their mat and walk away.
And that’s not fair! “Why that guy and not us?” we may ask. Well, the short answer is, I don’t know. But I do acknowledge that sometimes this seems to be the case. And that is a hard thing to understand.
Some of you know of Tony Campolo, the author and professor from Eastern College in Pennsylvania. He tells the story of the time when a colleague of his challenged him saying, “Tony, you talk all the time about Jesus’ power, but you don’t have a healing ministry.”
Well this guy’s comment got under Campolo’s skin. And so the next time he was out speaking to a group he decided at the end of the session to announce that he was going to hold an impromptu healing service. And so he invited the people who were there that if they wanted prayers for healing to stick around afterwards. And, to his surprise, about 30 people stuck around.
So that nobody got their hopes up, Campolo told them, “Listen, I’m not sure that anything miraculous is going to happen here tonight. In fact, I’ll be surprised if it does. But if you want me to pray over you, wait around and I’ll talk to you and get to know your story and then I’ll pray for healing.” Campolo said that nothing really extraordinary seemed to happen as he prayed. After he finished, he got back on a plane and flew back to Philadelphia, and, for the most part, forgot all about it.
Well the next week he gets a phone call. It’s a woman on the other end. And she says, “Dr. Campolo, you may not remember me but after you spoke at our church last week you prayed for my husband who was dying of cancer. You prayed that you would be healed.”
And Campolo, who had assumed that nothing much came of that night, suddenly is thinking, “Did she say, ‘he was dying of cancer’?” And with great expectation he asked this woman, “What happened?”
“Well”, she said, “my husband died last night.” And as Campolo tells it, he thinks, “Great. People come to me to pray for healing and then they die.”
But the woman went on. “I wanted you to know something. Last week when my husband came up to have you pray for him, he was at the end of his rope. And so was I. For years and years we had tried everything, but nothing had worked. He just got sicker and sicker. And he was so angry and bitter, mostly because he knew he wasn’t going to live to be old enough to see his grandchildren grow up. And that ate him up. And he hated God for it. And to be honest, none of us could stand to be around him.
But, out of desperation, he agreed to go up that night and have you pray for him. And, I want you to know, something happened. Something inside him changed. And for the last week, the last week of his life as it turned out, he was a different man. He was filled with such joy, and hope. He was at peace with God, and with the fact that he might die. And we had the most amazing conversations together. He shared things with me that I never knew. He was such a joy for all of us to be around.
And if somebody gave me the choice of the last 10 years with the husband I used to have, or the last week with the man I have been with these past 7 days, in a heartbeat I would choose this past week.”
And Campolo sat there speechless.
“And one more thing, Dr. Campolo,” she said. “I wanted you to know that husband wasn’t cured, but he was healed.”
He wasn’t cured, but he was healed.
It’s true. Those who are willing may not always be cured in this life, but they can always be healed! Jesus asks all of us the same question he asked the man by the pool that day. “Do you want to be well? Do you want to let me help you?” If we are willing, Jesus, by his grace, will always bring us healing. Sometimes death has to come first, but in Christ healing always comes.
Interesting to note that for many years those who claimed that the gospels were not rooted in history used this story to make their point because nobody had ever heard of a pool by this name and no five-sided pool had ever been discovered to have existed in antiquity. However, in 1956 archaeologists, digging at the present site of St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem, unearthed a rectangular pool with a portico on ech side and a fifth one dividing the pool into two separate compartments. The place excited just as John said it did! (See Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John).
Beeson, Ray, That I May Know Him (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1990), 37.
Matthew 23:34 (NIV).
For a complete list of findings see Barna Research at www.barna.org.
J. Walter Cross, "Second Seatings," Bradenton, Fla.