Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 1, 2016.
Taken from John 5:1-11
The Christian faith can turn and become a very shall-notty religion, can’t it? Take, for example, the Ten Commandments. Why is it always Christian leaders who want the public posting of the Ten Commandments? I don’t recall any Jewish leaders doing that. Why aren’t these Christian leaders pushing for the posting of the Beatitudes?
There’s something very appealing about all those “shall nots” of the Ten Commandments. They’re almost all “shall nots”…you shall not have any other gods before me, says the Lord God; you shall not make any graven images nor take the Lord’s name in vain nor steal nor lie nor murder nor covet…all preceded by this directive: you shall not. That’s what I mean, it all seems to get “shall-notty”. Two of the eight Ten Commandments are positive: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” and “Honor your father and your mother.” All the rest, “shall nots”.
Then, there are all the prohibitive corollaries we ourselves come up with. One of the homegrown corollaries for us boys growing up in the South was “thou shall not drink nor chew nor go with girls that do.” In Martinsville where I grew up in my elementary school years, we had no girls who drank nor chewed in our church or elementary school, so I was safe.
But, then, something dramatic happened during the summer between 6th grade and 7th grade: we moved to Waynesboro. There, just over these beautiful mountains, in Waynesboro, I entered the halls of junior high school. I was shocked! Shocked, as for the first time, I encountered girls who had just as expansive and salty a vocabulary as the boys. “Aha!” I thought. “These must be some of the girls my mother had warned me about!”
If you were to ask me as a religious professional which kind of religion is easier to administer, I probably would lean toward the shall-notty kind. It just seems simpler to tell people what they can’t do…“No! don’t do that!” It just flows more easily off the religious tongue. I think the Jewish religious administrators found this to be true as well.
These descendants of Aaron the first High Priest, loved to devise corollaries to the Ten Commandments. They even took the positive command, “You shall remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy,” and they turned that into a negative!
These keepers of the sacred flame of Judaism delineated a long list what thou shall not do if you are to keep the Sabbath holy: you shall not…you shall not…you shall not. All these corollaries, their versions of “neither drink nor chew nor go with girls that do,” spun out in excruciating detail.
By the time Jesus shows up at the Temple in Jerusalem, the “shall nots” of Sabbath had long-ago buried the “shall”. It really seemed to rankle Jesus! To these religious administrators, Jesus said, “Oh, yeah! Well, you just sit back and watch me do what I shall do.” And, Jesus did.
Such as on this Sabbath day John records for us in chapter 5. We, the readers, don’t know yet that it’s the Sabbath. That’s because John doesn’t mention the Sabbath until the very end of verse 9. Verses 1 through 8 simply describe for us this miraculous healing Jesus accomplishes one day as he goes to celebrate a festival at the Temple.
But, before we get there with John let me ask you: what does the Sabbath matter to you? As we’ll see, it mattered a great deal for these folks. But, what does the Sabbath matter to you?
For the Jews, Sabbath was sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. The sun set on Friday and out would come all the “shall nots” to get them through Saturday. But, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, his Jewish followers did the unthinkable: they changed the Sabbath. How dare they? How dare they, each of them devout Jews, how dare they upend almost 1,300 years of accepted Jewish doctrine?
They dared because of what they knew in the light of Easter morning. Not right away, of course. They were absolutely confused and even terrified by Easter morning. But as the months and years passed, they began to understand the meaning of Easter, and they changed Sabbath. What did Sabbath now mean for them? What does Sabbath mean for you?
Chapter 5, verse 2, John tells us Jesus enters on to the Temple grounds by way of the Sheep Gate. The Sheep Gate was just that: it was the point of entry where worshippers would bring the sheep for the priests to prep them to be sacrificed on the Temple altar.*
There by the Sheep Gate, there also was a large, spring-fed pool; steps at each corner of the pool led down into the water. Five covered walkways were there, four ran along the sides of the pool and fifth walkway, scholars think, went across the midsection, dividing the pool into two parts.
The story was that at random moments, an unseen angel of God would briefly disturb the water…perhaps a momentary bubbling or rippling in some part of the pool. Whoever made it down the steps and into the water first would be healed of whatever ailed them, and only the first one in would be healed.
You can imagine such a desperate scene. John says in verse three that under these five covered walkways lay a great number of disabled people…the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. Those who could see would watch, their eyes scanning back and forth over the pool’s surface for any unusual movement in the water. Those who were blind would have to listen ever so carefully for any noise, any sudden movement in the crowd that suggested the others had seen a stirring in the water and so were moving to get in.
All these ailing people lay there, vigilant, ready to thrust themselves ahead of the others. Those men and women who were paralyzed…who of their families could afford to sit all the day through, ready to help their paralyzed loved one down into the healing waters?
This practice, so random and so cruel, pitting sick against sick, blind against the lame and the lame against the paralyzed, every one of them with such debilitating suffering that it compelled them into this desperate competition for healing.
Perhaps the worst cruelty was this: they actually believed this was God’s way for them to find healing. That God could be so arbitrary as to set up this contrivance there on edges of the Temple grounds among the livestock, as if they were but so many dumb animals to whom God might, one day, throw some small scrap of mercy. How many prayed, “Dear God, send the angel today, won’t you?” “Let me win today, God…let me for once, win the race down into waters.”
Jesus walks by this travesty, and sees the same man that Jesus has seen every time he’s come to the Temple. Even as a boy, coming to the Temple with Mary and Joseph, Jesus would see this very same man laid out under one of the porticoes by the Pool of Bethsaida.
Today, Jesus stops. He asks this man, “Just how long have you been coming to the Pool looking to be healed?” The man says, “Thirty-eight years I’ve done this, and I haven’t been healed yet.” Jesus himself is only about thirty years old. For eight years longer than Jesus has been alive on this earth, this man has lain here.
“Why in the world haven’t you been healed after all these years? Don’t you want to get well?” Jesus asks him.
“Well, how can I? Look at me!” says the man. “No one will help me. Every time there’s a bubble or a burp, it’s a stampede. They run me over getting into the water!”
“Get up,” says Jesus. “You’re well. Pick up your mat. Walk the rest of your days in the healing I give you.” So, the man does. He picks up his mat and starts walking. What a stir that must have caused among the crowd.
John does not pause to wonder, beyond this man’s own explanation, why this man has lain here all these years. That’s not the point of the story. The point is what happens next. Watch, John tells us at the end of verse nine, watch what happens, because that day was the Sabbath.
The keepers of the Sabbath “shall nots” swoop down like vultures over a carcass. “What are doing?!” they shout at the man. “Thirty-eight years you’ve laid there, and you suddenly pick the Sabbath to get up and carry your pallet? It is the Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet. What has gotten into you?!”
“It’s not my idea,” the man protests. “ The man that healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’” Yes, Jesus who for years has known this man’s dilemma could have picked any other day to do this good work of saving grace. There was no emergency. But, as was his habit, Jesus picked the Sabbath.
These keepers of the Sabbath looked on a man miraculously healed and saw a Sabbath law-breaker. Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, looked on that same man and saw a broken Sabbath.
The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of healing. The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of restoration. The promise of God’s Sabbath was the promise of celebration. But, instead, the promise of God’s Sabbath had become promise broken, not by God, but by God’s priests. This man’s plight epitomized the curse of a broken-down Sabbath.
Do you find healing in the Sabbath? Do you find something essential being restored to your soul? Do you look to Sabbath as a celebration of what only God can give us because we know this broke world cannot give the one thing we must have, which is communion with God? Or, have we God’s people become like this man, laid out by a pool that offers nothing except one more day to be disappointed?
Now, I’ll concede this point to you: we clergy, we whom God has called as keepers of this sacred flame, we have long settled for the simplicity of the shall-nots. We clergy have to answer for all the ways we have broken God’s Sabbath promise.
But, thank God, Easter still dawns, shining the light of God’s salvation even for such weak souls as we so-called priests can be. Easter still dawns for you in your search for God’s Sabbath promise. Easter yet shines upon us here in this congregation, sisters and brothers of the Lord of the Sabbath, once crucified, now risen and alive among us.
When Jesus shared that Last Supper with his followers, he picked up that common cup and said, drink this and know now, in me, is the new covenant God makes. All the promise of the old Sabbath transformed into something new that we discover together, just like those first believers had to do: the promise of God’s new, Big Sabbath.
Do you want to be healed? Jesus asked the man. Sir, I have no one to help me and everyone is against me. No more, says Jesus, no more. It’s the Sabbath, don’t you know? Rise…and walk. It is indeed, an unending Sabbath for we who have heard Christ’s call, “Rise and follow me.”
* references used are Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966, pp. 205-211; and Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pp. 298-306.