Why can’t we just do the right thing? A Meditation on John 5.1-15

Very Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen is director of St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program and assistant professor of homiletics and rhetoric.  He delivered this sermon on the Sunday of the Paralytic, May 19, 2019.


Christ is Risen!

Picture yourself driving down a country road…at a moderate speed

It is a beautiful, bright spring day, the sky is clear, no traffic at all, just clear easy driving.

And up in the distance, you see a squirrel hop out onto the side of the road.

He twitches his bushy tail a few times and then…he darts across the road.

duminica_a_iv-a_dupa_pasti_-_a_slabanogului_2No problem, so you slow down a bit, to give him a chance to make it across the road safely.

He’s got plenty of time, no crisis, all he needs to do is just run across the road and jump into the bushes.

Everything looks fine…but…just before he makes it across the road to safety he hears you coming,

And what does he do?

Of course, he STOPS…in the road.

He only needs to go a few more feet and he’d be safe and clear,

But no, he’s stopped in the road, looking up at this big giant thing zooming straight at him.

When I’m the one driving the car, sometimes I actually start talking to the squirrel,

“Dude, what are you doing? Don’t just stand there, you’re so close, keep going, get out of the road.

No…no…don’t turn around and go back…OK, fine, but just keep going, just get off the road

WHAT?!? No. Don’t turn around again? Will you just make up your mind and get off of the road!?!”

In moments like this, we know exactly what the squirrel needs to do, it is so obvious.

But for some reason the squirrel just can’t do the right thing.

He’s paralyzed with fear, in the middle of the road.

I imagine that inside of that little squirrel brain, barely as big as a grape, there’s a furious conversation going on:

“Road, car, noise, run, road, car, noise, run, road, car, noise, run…”

Somehow, in that moment, events have overwhelmed the tiny squirrel mind, and this leads to some very bad decision making—or, to complete paralysis.

Both options can lead to a very bad outcome.

Now I must confess, that even though I am a human being, and I possess a brain that is vastly larger than the tiny creature on the road, I find myself in similar situations of being overwhelmed, making bad decisions, or feeling like I’m totally paralyzed.

Sometimes I know exactly what I should do, but I can think up all sorts of reasons not to do it. Maybe I do something, or say something to someone in the heat of the moment. And then afterward I say to myself, “Why in the world did I do that? Why did I SAY that?”

“Oh, no, what does he thing about me? Is he angry? Maybe he’s REALLY angry. Oh, no, is he going to talk to other people? Is this going to lead to some big crisis?”

“But, wait a minute, I wasn’t entirely in the wrong, something had to be said, someone needed to put his foot down…”

“But…did I have to say it in just that way? Oh, man, I really could have said it better…”

“Maybe I should just go and apologize and ask forgiveness…BUT…what if he didn’t even notice…that could turn it into an even bigger deal…”

“OK, I’ll just say nothing, and let it pass…BUT…what if he’s really angry?”

“What am I saying? I’m a Christian! I should just ask for forgiveness…”

“Ahhh…but what if he sees that as a sign of weakness, and uses it against me…”

This is the human equivalent of being the squirrel in the road.

Asking for forgiveness is the obvious decision, I know it is the right thing to do.

Jesus says, that if I have offended someone, then I should stop what I’m doing, go and make amends with that person. But yet, it is so easy to get balled up in all sorts of reasons, and counter reasons, and arguments and counter arguments, and before I know it I’m like that squirrel that runs, then stops, then jumps back, turns…and then just freezes, paralyzed in the road in the face of danger.

Today we hear about a man who is paralyzed, lying near a pool that is supposed to have healing properties, but only if you are able to get into the water at just the right time.

Seems kind of like a cruel joke doesn’t it?

The man is suffering from paralysis, and in order to be healed he has to MOVE at just the right time. He’s in a real crisis. The one thing that he needs to do in order to get better, to get on with his life, is EXACTLY the one thing that is the most difficult.

In his mind, he thinks that the problem is that he doesn’t have anyone to get him into the pool at the right time. He might have been saying to himself, “If I just had the right kind of friends, the right kind of family, not the small, timid kind, but a the big burly, strong, loud tough kind, the kind who could hold everyone else back, and lift me up, and carry me into that water at just the right time—Ah, then I could be cured! Then I could get on with my life!“

This man is certainly not the first person to find himself in this kind of situation.

Many, many years before, the people of Israel were traveling in the wilderness, and God commanded them to enter a new country, a place where they could be safe and healthy, and prosper.

So they sent scouts to see what they land was like, and the scouts brought back word that the people who lived there were big, and powerful, and frightening.

God said to them, “Don’t be afraid, I will be with you. Enter the land, I will protect you, just like I protected you when you left Egypt. Everything will be fine.”

But the people said, “Well, we’re not so sure. Maybe we should just stay here and play it safe.”

And they did nothing. They stayed right where they were, out in the wilderness.

But after a while, the people said, “OK. We’re not quite sure if God is going to be with us, but we’ve got a plan of our own. Now we’ve got it figured out, now we can do this.”

So off they went, armed with their own plans and their own cleverness…but things turned out very badly. There was a great conflict and the people were chased away and they were forced to stay out in the wilderness for a long time, a very long time. They were stuck there for thirty-eight years. (Deut 2.14)

Sound familiar? Remember our man who’s paralyzed, lying by the pool with all of the reasons for why he can’t be healed?

Yes, he’s been there for THIRTY-EIGHT years, just like the people of Israel who had imagined that they could somehow solve their own problems through their own cleverness.

Now, to be clear, it is a blessing to have a mind, and to be intelligent, and to be able to think about the world and life, and make informed, thoughtful decisions. But the danger is that our thoughts can become the primary obstacle to doing God’s will.

On one hand, we may think that we can figure it all out, and like the people of Israel in the wilderness, decide that we can work outside of God’s plan. This can lead to disaster and being stuck in the wilderness.

Or on the other hand, we can find ourselves completely paralyzed by our own thoughts, immobilized by all the powerful reasons why we haven’t got the right family or friends or colleagues, or opportunities, and we’re stuck, paralyzed, so close to the healing pool, but yet so far away.

Today Jesus comes to that man at the pool, physically infirm and paralyzed by his own rationalization, and Jesus comes to us, and He asks,

“Do you want to be healed?”

The man starts into this classic explanation for why he’s there, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the water at the right time and other people get into the water before me.”

And here, it is like Jesus says, “Uh-uh, stop talking. I got it. You’re stuck, you’re clueless. Rise, take up your bed and walk.”

Rise, take up your bed and walk.

And that’s it.

Jesus did not interrogate the man, “Do you want to be healed? Do you REALLLY want to be healed? If I heal you, are you willing to do what I tell you to do? Do you promise?”

Of course not, Jesus knows that the man is broken: his body is broken, his mind is broken, and his heart is broken.

Jesus knows that the man is paralyzed in his body, and paralyzed in his soul, so of course Jesus is not going to demand that the guy make some demonstration of his cleverness and clear thinking.

Jeus says, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.”

And the man is healed.

This is how God works in our lives.

The Son of God came into the world in the form of a servant, lived among us, taught and preached, healed the sick and cast out demons.

And when the powerful and clever and self-righteous rejected him, he allowed them to humiliate and torture and kill him on the Cross.

And then God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we would know that the hatred and evil and sin of man, is powerless in the face of God’s love.

And God did not do any of this because we deserved it, or because we had pleased him, or because we had made sufficient promises to guarantee that we would be obedient. Because, that is not love, that is a legal business transaction.

God did what God did, and God does what God does, not because we have done anything to deserve it. God did what God did, and God does what God does because he loves us, and because he wants us to be whole, and because he wants us to find true and everlasting life in him.

Today Jesus heals the man at the pool as a gift, a free gift of mercy and grace. And today, Jesus heals us as a free gift of mercy and grace.

How does Christ heal us? Our Lord heals us through his Resurrection, because in the Resurrection we know that suffering and death are not the end of the story. In the Resurrection we see that through suffering and death, through the Cross is the way to life.

Christ did not come into the world to eliminate the pain of life, He took on the pain of life to show us how to truly live as God created us to live—how to live in the midst of suffering and death in a way that brings life and love and hope to others.

In Christ, in the Risen Lord, suffering and tragedy is no longer a dead end.

When Christ was placed into the tomb, it appeared that it was the end, that it was all over.

But it was not, for the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.

I was once talking with wise friend, and he asked me why I had not done something, a good work that I knew I should do. And I told him all of the good reasons that I had not to do it all of the great excuses I had for not doing God’s will, for not using the gifts that God gave me.

And this friend patiently listened to all of my reasons, just like God patiently listens to all of our reasons, and then after I finished talking, he looked at me with this gentle smile.

And there was a moment of silence, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Do it scared.”

Do it scared.

This is what it means to live in the Resurrection of Christ.

We see the challenges and dangers of the world, we do not live a blind faith, but we are obedient to Christ’s commands, we do what the Lord commands us to do, and sometimes we do it scared, not because we are clever or tough or strong, but because Christ is risen. Because the love of God is more powerful than our fear.

This is why a parent doesn’t hesitate to go into harm’s way to save a child. Because of love.

This is why a spouse will run into a burning building to save the one they love. Because of love.

This is even why a soldier who has finished his tour of duty will volunteer to go back to war, in order to help keep his fellow soldiers safe. Because of love.

When God commands us to do what is difficult and frightening, motivated by love—by divine love—we do it scared.

This is how a frightened fisherman like St. Peter, a man so timid and confused that he publicly—PUBLICLY—denied Christ, could go on to become the chief of the apostles. In Christ’s resurrection Peter’s fears and worries and personal clever agendas were no longer a dead end, but became a way to new life.

For us, the greatest miracle of Christ’s resurrection happens in our hearts.

So, today, in our suffering, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen. In our brokenness, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen. In our confusion, we do God’s will confessing Christ is risen.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen.

Amen.