Ten years ago, when I accepted the call to come and serve as a pastor here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, the plan that Susan and I had was to sell our acreage in Saskatchewan and buy a house here. We had figured out the numbers, the market for acreages in our area was hot, and our bank was onside with the plan, so we went ahead and listed our place in Saskatchewan and bought a house here. However, after we bought here, the market in Saskatchewan cooled off and we ended up owning both properties for a year. Then, when our acreage did sell, we had to sell it for much less than what we had planned.
Now we were in trouble because the sale price of our property in Saskatchewan was not enough to make the financing work on the property here and we didn’t have any extra cash that we could use to make up the difference. We were helpless and if we didn’t find a solution, we would be forced to sell our house here, move back to the prairies where real estate was cheaper, and start over. This would have huge implications for Susan and I and our children and we were powerless to do anything about it. The only hope that we had was to approach our parents and ask them if they would help us.
And what I have learned from that experience is that there are three things that are triggered when you are helpless: 1. Your pride: I had to admit that my own decisions had put myself and my family in a situation where we were in serious trouble and needed someone else to help us. 2. Your need for compassion: Susan and I knew that our parents loved us, but would their love move them to help us. 3. Your need for rescue: Were our parents able to help us, if they wanted to. Thankfully, Susan’s Mom and my Mom and Dad were moved and able to help us and we were all able to stay here.
None of us likes to be helpless and in trouble. It is a scary situation to be in because we need someone to help us, but how do we know who we can be trust to be merciful towards us? How do we know if someone is going to rescue us? And what I want to show you today is that you can trust in Jesus’ mercy.
So with the themes of helplessness and mercy in mind, let us look at John 5:1-15. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, I invite you to turn there now. We are continuing to look at a biography of Jesus written by one of his followers named John. In the passage that we are looking at today, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Pool of Bethesda. If you Google “images of the Pool of Bethesda” you will see pictures of the ruins of the Pool as they are today and a model of what it likely looked like about 2,000 years ago.
The name of this pool, Bethesda, is significant because it means “House of Mercy” and this name contains the same word that is used in Psalm 23:6 which reads: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever. (Psalm 23:6 NKJV) And “House of Mercy” is a good name for the pool because people who needed mercy would gather there. People thought that the water in the pool had healing powers and so all around the pool under the covered walkways were large numbers of sick and lame people who were hoping to be healed.
John describes for us how Jesus walked up to a man that had been ill for thirty-eight years, which was longer than an average life span in that time, and asked the man this question, “Do you want to get well?” At first glance, this might seem like an odd question. We might think to ourselves, “This man has been ill for 38 years. Of course, he wants to get well!” But Jesus asked this question because there is no point in trying to help someone who does not want to be helped. Sometimes people are in helpless and in a terrible situation, but they don’t want to get out. Somehow their situation is serving some purpose in their life that they need fulfilled. And until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change, they have no real desire to get well. So think about this for a moment: If Jesus was standing before you right now and asked you ‘Do you want to get well?’ how would you answer him?
Looking at our Bible passage, we pick things up at verse 7: The sick man answered, “Sir, I don’t have anyone here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets there first.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man got well; he picked up his mat and started walking. (John 5:7-9)
After 38 years of helplessness and hopelessness, this man was healed. Jesus proved that his mercy can be trusted, not only in having compassion on this man, but also in healing him of his illness!
This is good news! But the good news of Jesus’ mercy is far greater than this. For there was something else going on in this passage which has huge implications for all people throughout time. Jesus intentionally healed this man on a Saturday, the Sabbath, or Jewish holy day. And this brought Jesus into conflict with the law-based religion of the Jewish leaders.
Centuries earlier, God gave the Ten Commandments which were meant as a gift of love from God to humanity. God gave us the Ten Commandments because he did not want us to hurt ourselves or others. He wanted us to know how to respond in faith to his merciful love and how to live in life-giving relationships with him and with each other. One of these Commandments was about the Sabbath. It says, 8 “Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. 9 You have six days in which to do your work, 10 but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. (Exodus 20:8-10a GNT) What happened over time was that the focus shifted from loving God to keep these commandments, and religious leaders in ancient times added extra rules around the Commandments to make sure that people didn’t violate them. These extra rules were totally man-made and yet people were expected to obey them as if they came from God. Human beings managed to turn a mercy-based life with God into a law-based religious system.
Law-based religion is the natural religion of every human being. It is in your heart and mine. Almost all of the organizations, institutions and activities that we have in our lives are law-based. We have to either measure up or we suffer the consequences. So it is very natural for us to think that God should relate to us by law just as everyone does in our lives. So churches, even those we teach that we are saved by grace, we tend to drift towards being a law-based religious system. And nothing is more toxic to relationships and the human soul than law-based religion.
You see, Jesus knew that he had to confront law-based religion, even though it would cost him his life, because he knew that law-based religion only leads to one of two results, hypocrisy or despair. Either we think that we can keep the law and pride takes over our heart, or we realize that we cannot keep the law and we are crushed by despair. And both pride and despair tear apart relationships and make us less than human. Jesus knew that there is no hope is a law-based religion and so he came to earth to be our Saviour and give us what we really need, which is mercy.
So Jesus deliberately healed that man on a Sabbath in order to confront the law-based religious system of the day. And the Jewish leaders recognized the dangerous threat that grace was to their law-based religious system. They completely ignored this man’s miraculous healing and they focused on the fact that he was carrying his mat on the Sabbath Day. And when they discovered that Jesus was the one who told the man to carry his mat, they hated Jesus. Soon they would begin make plans to kill Jesus and eventually they succeeded.
(To see an illustration how Jesus’ mercy helps us, click here.)
You can trust in the mercy of Jesus because he has already proven himself to be merciful because he is the divine Son of God and yet he left behind all the power, glory and riches of heaven to became one and save us. You can trust in the mercy of Jesus because he knew he would have to suffer to pay the full cost of forgiveness of all sins of all people throughout all time, and yet paid that price and more. You can trust in the mercy of Jesus because, on the third day after he was laid in a tomb, Jesus rose from the dead so that you can know with certainty that no matter how scary hopeless and helpless you are, Jesus loves you, he is with you and you are forever safe with him. Through the waters of Holy Baptism Jesus has grabbed a hold of you and he has promised that he will never let you go.
Your salvation is certain because Jesus’ mercy for you is infinite. The tricky part for us is to now live our lives trusting in his mercy. This means trusting that Jesus will always have mercy for you, that no matter how deep and dark the pit you are in is, that somehow, someway, measured against the span of all eternity, Jesus will rescue you. And he will.
So what kind of religion operates at the core of your being? Is it law-based religion or faith based on the mercy of Jesus? And what kind of a church are we? Are we law-based or are we mercy-based? There are 2 ways you can tell. In a law-based religion, when the rules are broken the response is wrath, condemnation and rejection. In a mercy-based religion, the response is compassion, sadness and clarification about boundaries. Secondly, in a law-based religion, when stress comes into the picture, the result is high amounts of anxiety. In a mercy-based religion, when stress comes into the picture, the result is calm determination.
A few days ago, my youngest brother was diagnosed with leukemia. In this midst of all this, while I and the rest of my extended family have been processing the news, it seems to me that some of us have been reacting with a law-based worldview. And there is both a religious and a non-religious version of the law-based worldview. The non-religious version says, “Don’t you disrupt my life because what is happening doesn’t meet my perfect standard.” The religious version says, “Don’t you disrupt my life because what is happening doesn’t meet God’s perfect standard.”
I know that law-based religion is at the centre of my heart and yours. We all need Jesus’ mercy in our lives. And so do the millions of people within an hour’s drive of the doors of this building. And the only way people who do not go to any church will know Jesus’ mercy is if we share it with them. And that means that the first person who needs to receive more of Jesus’ mercy is you and me.
So here is my two-fold challenge to you: First, embrace your helplessness and trust in the mercy of Jesus. Let his infinite mercy for you soften your hard heart and wash away your pride and shame. Second, be merciful to others. Start with those who are closest to you, and then work outward from there into all the circles that Jesus has given to you. And if we do that, amazing things will happen in your life and in the life of this church. You can trust in Jesus’ mercy. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on January 14, 2018.)