Sermons
Nov
22

Do You Want to Be Well?

 

“Do You Want to Be Made Well?”

Reverend Rick Kirchoff

December 5, 2004

 

John 5:1-9 NRSVAfter this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethzatha, which has five porticoes.  In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed.  One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. 

 

Let us pray. Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove.  Descend on us, reveal your love. Word of God and inward light, wake our spirits; clear our sight. Surround us now with all your glory.  Speak through me that sacred story.  Take my lips and make them bold.  Take hearts and minds and make them whole.  Stir in us that sacred flame.  Then send us forth to spread your name.  Amen.

 

 

Jake walked along the deserted California beach feeling desperate and depressed.  The relationships in his life were in ruins; he had carelessly discarded all those who had been closest to him.  His finances were in a mess and he saw no alternative but bankruptcy.  At age 55, as he walked along the beach, caught up in dark thoughts about the downward direction of his life, he looked down and noticed something sticking out of the sand.  He bent over to check it out. It was a bottle – a weathered old bottle, half buried in the sand. Picking it up, he saw a note inside.  He uncorked the bottle and pulled out the note. 

 

It read: “To whoever finds this note, I will give half of all of my estate; the other half will go to my attorney.  Signed: Daisy Alexander, June 20, 1937.”   Thinking it was some kind of a joke, Jake almost crumpled the note and threw it away.  Instead, he stuffed it back in the bottle, took it home, and stored it on a shelf in his closet. 

 

One day, he was talking to a friend and related the episode of walking along the beach and finding the bottle with the note inside.  His friend’s mouth dropped open.  “Jake,” said his friend, “Don’t you know who Daisy Alexander was?”  Jake shook his head: no.  His friend said, “Daisy Alexander was an heiress, she was worth millions; she was the daughter of one of the Singers, of the Singer Sewing Machine Company fortune.”

 

That got Jake’s curiosity up!  He began to research the life of Daisy Alexander.  He discovered that she had died in 1939 at the age of 81.  She left no will.  She was known to be an eccentric who would always write down little messages, put them in bottles, toss them into the river or into the ocean, hoping that someone would find the bottles and contact her.  So, with nothing to lose, Jake hired an attorney and set out to claim half of Daisy’s estate.  His attorney hired an oceanographer who verified that a bottle dropped in the Thames River could make its way through the English Channel to the North Sea, through the Bering Straits, into the north Pacific, and onto the shoreline of California in 15-20 years.  So, in 1955, eighteen years after Daisy Alexander had written the note, a judge awarded Jake twelve million dollars!  (Tewell)

 

For Jake, the most difficult part of that process was taking the bottle out of his closet and claiming the gift that was his all along – because he had come to believe that nothing good would ever come his way. 

 

In our scripture today, we meet another man who was at that same place.  Like Jake, this man had nearly given up on himself.  For thirty-eight years, he had been doing the same thing over and over — going to the pool of Bethesda, hoping for a miracle.  But no miracle came; nothing changed; nothing got better. 

 

I think this story has far less to do with the healing of a broken body than with the healing of a broken mind, a broken will, and a broken spirit. 

 

Every time I read this story, I recall the definition of “insanity” that my friends in the recovery movement have shared with me: Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, in the same way, and expecting a different result.   I like the definition…as far as it goes.  But I’ve come to believe it needs a slight twist: “Insanity is doing the same things, over and over, in the same ways, and expecting different results, and in the process, hurting yourself or hurting other people.” 

 

I’m talking about those behaviors, attitudes, and habits that become hurtful, even destructive — personally, or relationally or spiritually.  I am convinced that, by this definition, everyone of us in this room, if we examine our lives, will discover that we carry around with us a measure of “everyday insanity.”   What do I mean?

 

I’m talking about the insanity of carrying around a wound in your mind and in your spirit — a wound, an injury out of the past that we will not let heal.  So, we stay miserable rather than forgive the person that wounded us.

 

Consider the everyday insanity of a temper that’s short, or an anger held far too long…a bad habit constantly repeated, or a good pattern never begun…a prejudice never faced, or a fear never confronted.

 

Or examine the everyday insanity that happens in our spiritual life.  We say we want to have a close, life-giving relationship with God and we’ve heard from preacher after preacher, teacher after teacher, that the way that happens is that we get into the scriptures everyday, we pray everyday, we attend worship every week, we receive the sacrament frequently, and we engage in works of charity and mercy and justice.  Yet, we choose not to do those things!  We think somehow it ought to just happen to us.  It ought to just flow down to us like manna out of heaven.  We feel empty, and then blame God for our emptiness. 

 

Then, of course, there’s the everyday insanity of trying to cover up our pain and our emptiness the old fashioned way: with drugs, with alcohol, with over-eating, overworking, or inappropriate sex.

 

I read about a recovering alcoholic who said of his past: “I used to go out drinking, and I would drink vodka and orange juice.  I would drink so much vodka and orange juice that I’d get sick and I’d wake up with a terrible hangover.  So I’d say to myself: ‘Bad move. You went out and drank vodka and orange juice.  Now you’re sick; you have a hangover.  You know what the problem is, don’t you? It’s the orange juice.’  So I changed to grapefruit juice.”

 

In so many ways, for whatever reasons, so many of us settle for the ordinary, everyday variety of insanity of doing the same things over and over again, hurting ourselves, and our relationships.  We drink too much, we exercise too little, and work too hard.  We make unhealthy choices; and when things go badly for us, we blame someone else for the choices we’ve made.

 

And isn’t it true that so often we would far rather live with the pain of the problem rather than the risk of a solution?

 

I know there’ve been times that I’ve felt that way.  More often than I like to admit, I’ve been like the old hound dog lying on the front porch of the old man’s cabin. The preacher came to visit the old man and noticed that throughout his visit, the old hound dog kept whimpering and whining and every so often would let out this long, mournful moan.  Finally, the preacher asked, “What’s wrong with your dog?”  The old man said, “Where he’s lying here on the porch, there’s a nail sticking up, and it’s probably gouging him in the side.  I guess it’s hurtin’ him.”  The preacher said, “Why doesn’t he get up and move?”  The old-timer replied, “I guess it’s not hurtin’ him enough yet.”  (Rusaw)

 

Isn’t it true?  We prefer the insanity of the nail, rather than doing what it takes to find healing and hope.  But finally there comes a point in our lives when we just get tired of the pain, and we hurt enough to want change, or we see the possibility of a better future. (Rusaw)

 

Well, today in this scripture, we meet such a man at the pool of Bethesda, who, I think, has finally, after thirty-eight years of lying on the nail, comes to that place. 

 

For thirty-eight years he had joined other sick and crippled folks at the pool.  Legend has it that periodically an angel came down, stirred the water, and imparted healing power to the water.  At that point, the first one who got into the spring, would be healed.  For thirty-eight years he’d come to the pool.  More than once, he’d tried to get to the water in time, but others rushed ahead; now he just sat there passively, without hope, without expectation, miserable and paralyzed.  Yet, he keeps coming back again and again and again.  Then, one day, as he sat there, a shadow fell across him. He shaded his eyes form the sun, he looked up and saw that it is Jesus.  He asked, “What do you want with me?” Jesus replied, “Do you want to get well?”

 

As we move into Advent, it’s critical that we remember that something wonderful can happen in your life and mine when the love and power of Jesus meets “the ordinary, everyday insanity in our lives.”  Life can be transformed!  With that as a backdrop, what does He ask of us this Advent? 

 

First, Jesus asks us to be honest with ourselves, about ourselves. Do we really want to be well?  Do we really want to let go of the ordinary insanity of life? 

 

There’s a wonderful story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson hiking. They hike all day long; then, share a meal, pitch their tent and go to sleep. Deep into the night, Sherlock Holmes wakes.  He sees the stars in the sky above him.  He nudges Watson and says, “Watson, look up at that sky.  What do you see?”  Watson replies, “I see millions of beautiful stars.”  Holmes says, “What does that tell you?  What can you deduce from it?”  Watson says, “Well, astronomically it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and probably billions of stars and planets.  Astrologically, I see Leo and Sagittarius.  Chronologically, it tells me that it’s a little after three.  And theologically, it tells me that God is great and that we are small.  Meteorologically, it tells me the weather tomorrow is going to be dry and sunny.” Holmes is silent for a moment, and then says, “No Watson!  It means that somebody has stolen our tent.”

 

Jesus asks that we open our eyes to what the truth really is.  Get honest with yourself and confess what has gone wrong in your life, and what it is that needs to be set right. 

 

Second, stop blaming!  Stop blaming the past, stop blaming other people, stop blaming the situation or your circumstance; accept the responsibility that is yours to “get up and walk.”  

 

Ah, but we love the blame-game!  It is the oldest game in the world. 

 

Immediately after that first sin in the Garden of Eden, God confronted Adam with his sin.  What does Adam do?  In this amazing masterpiece of blames-man-ship, listen to what Adam says: “The woman that you put here with me…she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  In that one finely-tuned excuse, Adam managed to shift the blame in two ways, onto Eve who offered him the fruit, and onto God, who gave him Eve.

 

It’s the oldest game around.  But we must understand that blame tends to keep us locked in life the way it is.

 

Carl Rogers, a psychologist of the last century, said that he considered only one kind of person absolutely hopeless, and that’s the person who insists on blaming others for his or her problems.  That person gets paralyzed by the need to blame.  We’re to own our role for getting out of the mess that we’re in, no matter who put you in it. When we can do that, there’s hope; help is available. (Larson)

 

Martin Seligman, in his book, Learned Optimism, says that we all have in our hearts a yes and a no.  We respond to life either negatively or positively.  What we need to learn is to give “yes” the dominant place in our hearts, because in doing so, we’ll change the course of our living!

 

Consider the example of marriage — a marriage in trouble!  Whenever a marriage is in trouble…one of the first questions that we who do counseling need to ask that couple is: Do you want this marriage to work?  Because if you do, there is absolutely no end to what God can do to bring healing into the relationship and help you to love one another again, and go beyond where you ever thought you could be.  But if you don’t want the marriage to work, there’s no amount of counseling, no amount of spiritual tricks or gimmicks that will patch up a marriage that you don’t want fixed.  God cannot and will not make it work…until both of you want it to work. (Larson)   But in a marriage, when the answer is yes, I love this person, or I want to fall in love again, there’s no limit to what God can do.

 

And that brings me to the final thing that I’d like to say this morning.  Give your life to the One who specializes in repairing lives like yours and mine. Let Jesus help you where you need help; let him give you the strength you don’t have.  The transformation of our lives begins now, here, today and it continues for the rest of our lives. 

 

One day as Ruth and Billy Graham were driving along the highway, Ruth said, “Billy, I’ve decided what I want to have written on my tombstone.”  They’d gone through miles of highway construction where they had to slow down, take detours and switch lanes, had to stop and go, then stop again.  Finally, they came to the end of construction and that’s when she saw the sign that helped her decide on her epitaph.  She said, “Billy, that’s what I want on my tombstone.”   At first he didn’t get it, but as it dawned on him, he smiled.  You know what the sign said…the words Ruth wanted on her tombstone?  It is this: “End of construction.  Thanks for your patience.” 

Our lives are meant to be constantly under construction. 

Earlier, I told about a psychologist who said that he considered only one kind of person hopeless: the person who insists on blaming others for their problems.  There’s another kind of hopeless person: the person who thinks they’ve already arrived…that there’s nothing they need to change.  Our lives are meant to be constantly under construction

And this Advent, Jesus is asking you and me: “Do you want your life to be different?  Do you want to let go of the ordinary insanity that cripples you and keeps you paralyzed?  Are you weary of hurting yourself and others by doing the same unproductive things, the same way, over and over?  Do you want to be well?”  If so, Jesus is offering his hand.  He is saying, “Stand up and walk.  Take my hand.  I’m with you.”  But the truth is, the next step is yours.

Let us pray. O God, we give you thanks today that you value us and honor us enough to come to us and invite us to a new life.  We thank you that you do not violate us by forcing us to be different than we are, but that you make us an offer that, yes, we can refuse.  Help us to work on that refusal in our lives.  Help us to say yes, when you ask us, “Do we want to be made well?”  For we ask that prayer in the name of Jesus, Amen.   

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Endnotes: This sermon is based, in part, upon material from the following sources:

  1. Bruce Larson, What God Wants to Know, Chapter Five
  2. Rick Rusaw, “One on One with a Dysfunctional Life,” Preaching Plus
  3. Thomas Tewell, “The Day Jesus Crashed a Pity Party!”, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church