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Monday, February 21, 2011

Who is Your Master?

My sermon from Sunday, February 20, 2011

In one of my small groups, we were sharing prayer concerns. I asked one of the group members and, “How’s it going? What’s up?”

He said, “There’s nothing new. I’m fine.”

When we prayed, I asked that God to bring “the new” into this man’s life. He had said, “Nothing is new.” So I asked God to do something new in him. By the way, I have his full permission to share this.

Our group nervously chuckled. How would you feel if someone prayed that God would crash into your life and do unexpected, new things? Radical change would come. Are we ready for that?

Maybe we don’t want the new. No matter how good or bad things are we know what to expect. We may be thrilled with life. We may complain all the time. But, we don’t seek change. The unknown is unsettling, and we fear it more than the pain we have come to accept and expect.

This is a problem. When we resist change we cut ourselves from Jesus. I am not saying ‘chase after every fad.’ Not all new things are sent from God. We must be prayerful and wise and we must seek. God consistently does new things. It is who God is. Teary-eyed Christians nostalgically long for the old hymns, and yearn for old ways. Such a rearview mirror perspective is foreign to the New Testament.

Beloved old hymns preserve our spiritual memory. We should sing those hymns. Seeking the new is not rejecting old. It is to recognize that our heritage is wonderful because it helps us see God. So does the new.

In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus promises to give each of his followers a “new name” in Heaven. We sing a new song (5:9; 14:3), and live with Jesus in the New Jerusalem, the capital of the new heaven and the new earth (21:1). Jesus says, “I make all things new” (21:5).

The Christian, who wrote Revelation, a man named John, came out of the church at Ephesus, the community that produced the Gospel of John. In the Gospel, we meet a man who had trouble with new things. His was stuck in a horrible life that he had come to accept.

As is often the case in the fourth gospel, it was festival time in Jerusalem,. There was a section of the city that was undesirable to decent people for two reasons. First, it was near the sheep gate. The shepherds who came and went had to touch the sheep and that made them unclean.

Second, this quarter was avoided because of the Bethesda pool. Legend had it that an angel would stir the water and the first one in would be healed. How cruel. The fastest among the lame and broken would have a chance at healing, but only fastest. Not the rest. These people had incurable debilitating ailments. There was chance of healing. Still, without hope from anywhere else, the afflicted and diseased crowded there and jockeyed to be first in the water when the surface rippled.

No respectable person would want to be around so many disgusting animals or their handlers. Worse, the upright and holy would avoid the disabled people because it was believed that they were in their wretched state because of sin. They were to blame for their suffering.

We disapprove of ancient superstitions that relegate the wounded to the fringe of society, and then blame them for their plight. How could they, we ask. But we aren’t exactly rushing to the sick and diseased so we can love and care for them. Visit a nursing home. There’s no line to get in, no waiting. It’s a place of death and we’ve given into it. Certainly, God will do no new thing there. The afflicted are as ignored as they were in Jesus’ day. But, I digress. Back to the story in John 5.

The healing pool by the sheep gate was avoided by upstanding people, so that’s naturally where we find Jesus. Stepping past the healthiest of the sick, he approached a man who for 38 years lay there staring at the Bethesda healing pool.

He was mastered by his illness. I have no choice.. My only hope is to get to the water when it is stirred up. But, I am not fast enough even for that. So this is my life.

He was mastered by his superstition.

I have to catch the angel in the waters as they are stirred.

Seriously? He couldn’t out maneuver the other lame people. How was he going to catch an angel for the divine being to heal him?

And in his heart, did he truly believe the legend? How many blind people has he seen regain their sight in those waters?

When Jesus performed miraculous healings, everyone whether it was in Galilee, Samaria, or Jerusalem was surprised. Why? They didn’t expect it. They had not seen it before. This paralyzed man stared at the pool - a legend that had become a lie he had chosen to believe.

He was mastered by the whole system. Where was his place? In the worst part of town. Society said he belonged there and he accepted it. He was not even in the healing in the pool. His place was the hopeless sidline, like a NC State basketball fan pretending his team might win, but really knowing the outcome. This man was depended on others to drop a coin in his beggar’s cup or place leftovers or more likely spoiling food on the pallet he called home. He lived at the level of street dust and did not for one minute believe that would ever change.

Then Jesus comes along.

“Do you want to be made well?” The most important verb in the sentence is “want.” “” in Greek. It can mean “desire” or “wish,” like a kid in a store, seeing the candy bar and wishing his mom could get it for him. Or, it can mean “wish” in the sense of resolve, like a student wishing for an ‘A’ and working three times harder to make the wish happen.

We do not get closer to Jesus by merit or extraordinary hard work. Healing only comes because Jesus gives it. What I think this passage does show is that with the healing, Jesus gives an invitation to an entirely new life. We walk with God and see and know God because we walk with the Son of God, Jesus, and we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

What evil stands over us and tells us what lives we can and cannot live? Who stands between us and abundant life in the Kingdom of God?

I want to share my faith, but I can’t. I’d lose my job. Secularism is the master that keeps us from the dynamic life Jesus has called us to live.

I’d lose my job and anyway, my coworkers all atheists, Muslims, or from other countries. They don’t want to hear of my experience with Jesus. Let’s add xenophobia (fear of the foreigner) to the list of masters. Our boss says we can’t live for Jesus, not at work anyway. Our fears say we can’t. The enormity of the task says we can’t. It’s too big. Too hard.

I want to pray and believe that my sister’s cancer will heal. But the best doctor in the world is right here, in the Triangle, has seen her, and says there’s no hope. Add technology and the voice of the experts to the list of forcess preventing us from being made well. Because we know her sister couldn’t be declared whole unless the cancer was gone. Her life couldn’t possibly be filled with meaning and joy and laughter and love and blessing in the final six months she has on this earth. A life lived with cancer and with Jesus couldn’t be consider a life that is well. Could it? Maybe our definitions need to be included – deceiving masters that limit our picture of Jesus and what Jesus can do.

I want a life of joy in which I see the blessings of God and share the blessings of God. But, I am bogged down with responsibility, and it’s an effort to get my kids to soccer, piano, church youth group, and the other 10 commitments they have; and to top it all off, my marriage has become, no spark. We’ll have to include the over-scheduled reality of 21st life in the roll call of masters that determine our fate.

I want to sacrifice for Jesus, and help others in need. But I can’t live that life. I am too busy and I don’t have money or time to spare.

Do we want, “” resolve to accept the life Jesus gives? Do we want to be made well? Do want what Jesus offers, or are we just fine with life as it is no matter how good or bad?

Jesus came to the disabled man and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Do we want to be made well?

My bosses, my school, my world won’t allow it.

Technology and experts and history and realistic thinking have declared it impossible.

I am too busy. I am too burdened. I am too depressed.

I can’t afford it. I don’t have space in my life to be made well.

The powers in my life, the things I’ve come to count on, the voices I listen to, the worldview that has shaped me, the systems I live, the rule makers over me … no Jesus, you don’t understand, I can’t be made well.

Jesus said, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” The man did so immediately. And then what?

Jesus says to us, I’ll take care of everything thing. He dies on a cross. Then he walks out of the grave, defeating sin in his death and defeating death in his resurrection. We’re forgiven and saved. Then what?

The man in John 5 was still handicapped because he still submitted to the powers of the system that said he had to live his life on a pallet in the worst part of town with no hope. He carried his mat because someone (Jesus) told him to. He stopped when someone else, the authorities tolf him to. They accused him of the sin of working on the Sabbath. He did not say to them, “I am healed! God is here!” He said, “Whoops” and quickly put down his pallet. You’re not supposed to carry it around on Sabbath. He accepted the chains they imposed.

Then Jesus found him – a second time because that’s what Jesus does, relentlessly pursues lost, broken people – and Jesus tells him sin is worse than sickness. He won’t be completely well until he changes his direction in life. But, the man fears the rule makers more than the healer. He turns reports Jesus to the authorities.

Do we fear the rule makers who set us in our fixed places in life more than we fear the power of God? Who tells us what our lives are going to be? The temple authorities? The illness that make life hard? To whom do we defer? The ones who govern us? The teachers of our children? The ones who advertise and then sell us products they’ve convinced us to buy? Who defines us and determines our course? Who are our masters?

Do we dare listen to the one who stood in the midst of disease and death brought the handicapped man, to his feet? Do we dare allow ourselves to be defined by the one who in the beginning was with God and who was God and who became flesh and lived among us? Do we find our ultimate meaning in the one who sees the very worst in us and says, “I’ll die for that?” Do we listen to the one who rose on Easter morning?

Jesus did not come to heal the sick. He does heal, but he came to seek out and save the lost. He came that we might believe in Him and have life and have it more abundantly. The abundant life is enjoyed in triumph and loss, illness and health, and when life is riding high and when life sinks into the shadow of death. In all times and in the unique stories of all people, Jesus gives the abundant life and does new things each day.

What are we to do?

We open our hearts that he might come in.

We say a resounding “NO” to any person, forces, system, or voice that would tell us God’s can’t do new things.

We seek God. We expect to see God everywhere. When we don’t see him, we assume His presence. No possibility of how life might go is ruled out because God is the initiator. We live with our minds oriented toward Heaven. We live in God’s kingdom and we do things the way Jesus does them. We want to made well and to live a future determined by Jesus.

That poor man didn’t know where to go after he was healed by the Bethesda pool. But we do. We know to go where Jesus leads. We know that after we are made well life is forever changed and forever changing. We are newly created, made to walk with Jesus.

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