For our Call to Worship this morning I have chosen a simple hymn – originally a hymn for children, but I think it expresses equally well the needs of adults in seeking to worship God; and in our homes we are still at liberty to ‘sing’ if we wish, as the first verse suggests!
Holy Spirit, hear us;
Help us while we sing;
Breathe into the music
of the praise we bring.
Holy Spirit, prompt us
When we kneel to pray;
Nearer come, and teach us
What we ought to say.
Holy Spirit, shine thou
On the Book we read;
Gild its holy pages
With the light we need.
Holy Spirit, help us
Daily, by thy might,
What is wrong to conquer,
And to choose the right.
To you we come, O Lord,
to you who are the true goal of all human desiring,
beyond all earthly beauty;
in the night you are our confidence;
from first light, be our joy!
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil;
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.
St John’s Gospel 5: 1-18
After 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 Bethesda, which has five covered colonnades (porches). In these lay many invalids – blind, lame and paralysed.
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.
Now that day was a Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured: ‘It is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them: ‘The man who made me well said to me: “Take up your mat and walk.”‘ They asked him: ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk?” ‘
Now, the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later, Jesus found him in the temple and said to him: ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.
The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them: ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.‘ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
Hymn MP 367
Jesus is Lord! Creation’s voice proclaims it,
For by his power each tree and flower was planned and made.
Jesus is Lord! The universe declares it,
Sun, moon and stars in heaven cry: ‘Jesus is Lord!’
Jesus is Lord! Jesus is Lord!
Praise him with hallelujahs, for Jesus is Lord!
Jesus is Lord! Yet from his throne eternal
In flesh he came to die in pain on Calvary’s tree.
Jesus is Lord! From him all life proceeding,
Yet gave his life a ransom thus setting us free.
Jesus is Lord! ….
Jesus is Lord! O’er sin the mighty conqueror,
From death he rose and all his foes shall own his name.
Jesus is Lord! God sends his Holy Spirit
To show by works of power that Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord! …..
Last week we reflected on the story of the healing of the Court Official’s son. Now John tells of another healing miracle, but in very different circumstances.
Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival – we are not told which one. At some point during this visit he comes to the pool called Bethesda, where many unfortunates are gathered. A footnote to our Gospel reading gives a few extra lines which were not in the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel, but which appear to have been added to later manuscripts to explain to non-Jewish readers why all these sick people were lying at the pool. Here is what that footnote says: for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.
The great Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay explains that under the pool there was a subterranean stream which, every now and again, bubbled up through the pool, disturbing the water. We don’t know how often this happened. If it was quite unpredictable it would certainly have been a challenge for any helper to wait by the pool to help a sick person into it.
In our story, Jesus somehow becomes aware of the man who has been there the longest; perhaps someone points him out.
The miracle of which we read last week involved a much-loved child suddenly smitten by a dangerous illness, whose father sought out Jesus and implored his help. This week, the sufferer appears to be alone. He has been ill for thirty-eight years, and says he has no-one to help him into the healing waters. Yet he has remained there all that time – apparently not just helpless, but hopeless. He does not know who Jesus is, so asks nothing of him. He has given up.
At first sight Jesus’ question to the man – ‘Do you want to be made well?’ seems strange to us. The man might have retorted, ‘Do you think I’d have been waiting here for all these years if I didn’t want to be cured?’ But It is not unknown for invalidism, or learned helplessness, to become a habit, in the case of physical ailments. And the same is true of spiritual disability. An individual, or a group of Christians, or, indeed, a church, can become so despondent, so helpless, that they may feel there is no hope of betterment, so no point in trying.
This man facing Jesus still has a will, however inert it has become through years of helplessness. The little boy of last week’s miracle was cured because his father made the effort and the attempt of faith to ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus now seeks the cooperation of the Bethesda sufferer in his own cure – even the slightest motion of the will to reach out to a new life, despite the challenges that will entail. It is indeed only a slight response that Jesus’ question receives – the man does not answer it directly, but instead points out the difficulties. But even this tentative engagement is enough for the Spirit of God, ever anxious to engage with humans for their benefit and spiritual growth.
Jesus then commands the man to rise, to lift the pallet on which he has been lying, and begin to walk again – and he does! An amazing miracle, a demonstration of the power of God.
But it has taken place on the sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.
What happens next is also amazing, but it is instead a sad demonstration of the small-mindedness of which we humans – and religious humans at that – are capable. The orthodox Jews nearby, instead of giving thanks to God for this miracle of healing, accuse the newly healed man of breaking the law, by carrying his mat on the sabbath, the day of rest prescribed by the law.
Technically this was a just accusation, in that he was indeed in breach of the interpretation which the rabbis put on that one of the Ten Commandments which demands that the seventh day be kept holy, and which forbids ‘work’ on that day. Over the years, religious authorities had gone to great lengths to define ‘work’, which came to include carrying any burden at all. Those ultra-orthodox Jews in the vicinity who condemned the man were, apparently, unable to discern the ‘wood’ of the presence of God’s activity, through the ‘trees’ of the rabbinic laws.
It is easy to mock or deplore such attitudes, but we must be aware of the danger of detecting faults in others which we fail to recognise in ourselves. Do I, do we, fail to discern the possibility of the grace of God at work, in events where our social norms have been breached? Does our forensic Presbyterian system ever allow its structures and procedures to impede the activity of the Spirit?
John goes on to describe how, later, when Jesus has been identified as the one who had healed the man, (and who was therefore in rabbinic eyes doubly guilty, having himself done healing ‘work’ on the sabbath, and having also encouraged another to break the sabbath rules,) this healing miracle stimulated the authorities to begin to harass Jesus. But when they challenged him, his reply further enraged them. Said Jesus: ‘My Father goes on working, and I too go on working.’ (In other words, my Father’s work does not stop on the sabbath, so because it is his work that I do, that does not stop on the sabbath either.)
We should note that, although Scripture says that God rested from creation on the seventh day, that does not mean that he rested from all his activity on that day. God’s works of Judgement and mercy, of compassion and love, continue whatever the day – indeed, the universe itself would not survive if that were not the case, if God’s sustaining providence were withdrawn.
The Jewish authorities were in no doubt of the implications of Jesus’ reply: Jesus was claiming to be doing the work of God, and by calling God his Father, he made himself equal to God. Such a claim must either be truthful or blasphemous – in the eyes of the Jewish authorities it was blasphemy; so now they sought to kill Jesus.
The challenge faced by the Jewish authorities is that faced by all who encounter the story of Jesus – whether in his own lifetime, in the time of this Gospel at the end of the first century, or in our own day: do we discern in this man’s life the compassion and the power and the glory of God, at work in our world?
Today’s scripture lesson tells of a healing miracle, but it also offers important questions for all who seek to follow Christ.
Do we strive continually to overcome our personal prejudices, and keep open our hearts and minds to discern and give thanks for God’s activity in the world, even in the most unexpected ways and places, and the least likely people?
Do we truly desire those changes in ourselves, or in our mode of service, that God may ask of us? And will we, even as we dutifully ask the aid of the Spirit to bring about such change, work with God to bend our wills and direct our efforts towards that goal, that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven?
These things are always easier said than done!
Only by grace …….. but grace there is in abundance, if we will humbly seek and accept it. Amen.
Most holy God, our loving heavenly Father,
Hear the prayers we bring to you now for ourselves, for your Church, and for the world.
We bring to you our faults and our failures,
Our joys, and our sorrows;
If we harbour resentment against anyone, we lay that before you now
And we seek to forgive, as we would be forgiven.
For your Name’s sake, O God, lead us in the paths of goodness;
And let your mercy follow us always,
So that we may be always with you.
Lord Jesus Christ, we bring before you now the needs of your Church, both here at home, and throughout the world.
Where she is persecuted, sustain and protect her:
Where she is weak, strengthen her
Where she is faithful, let her know your presence:
Where she is lethargic or downhearted, remind her of her high calling,
And should she be disobedient or in error, correct her,
For your Name’s sake.
Loving God, your world is troubled
By disease, by violence, by tyranny, by injustice, by inequality.
We give thanks for the courage of all who oppose evil,
For the dedication of all who care for the vulnerable.
For the vision of all peacemakers.
Send us, we pray, the strength and wisdom of your Spirit;
Endow our leaders with integrity and with a passion for justice;
And grant that all peoples everywhere may seek the peace and welfare of their neighbours,
Living together in harmony and in love,
in this one world; in this your world. Amen.
Hymn MP 439
Lord of all being, throned afar,
Thy glory flames from sun and star;
Centre and soul of every sphere,
Yet to each loving heart how near.
Sun of our life, thy quickening ray
Sheds on our path the glow of day;
Star of our hope, thy softened light
Cheers the long watches of the night.
Out midnight is thy smile withdrawn,
Our noontide is thy gracious dawn,
Our rainbow arch thy mercy’s sign;
All, save the clouds of sin, are thine.
Lord of all life, below, above,
Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
Before thy ever-blazing throne
We ask no lustre of our own.
Grant us thy truth to make us free,
And kindling hearts that burn for thee,
Till all thy living altars claim
One holy light, one heavenly flame.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
Keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Christ Jesus;
And may the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest and remain on each one of us
Now and always. Amen.