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Redemption: Limp In, Leap Out (John 5:1-9)
Limp in, leap out!
I saw those words on a large billboard in Birmingham, Alabama. Naturally I looked to see what they were advertising. Birmingham Springs Company, said the sign. It was a garage for rehabilitating car springs.
My mind turned immediately to this story in the Gospel of John, about the man who had been lame for thirty-eight years and lay daily by the pool of Bethzatha in old Jerusalem. Apparently the pool was thought to possess special healing powers at particular times, when the water would begin to roll from underground pressures. There was a legend that an angel troubled the waters, and that bathing in them when the angel had been there would work miracles.
The whole idea, in other words, was "Limp in, leap out!"
The pool with its five porticoes (or covered porches) was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1871, and may be visited today by those who travel to Jerusalem. It is not a very large or impressive site, but it was obviously important to the inhabitants of the city in New Testament times. It may very well have been a spring-fed pool with medicinal qualities, like some of the famous spas of Europe.
The image of such a pool, and of the many sick and crippled people who entered it to be well, reminds us that there are natural places of restoration in the world around us where people can literally limp in and then feel as if they are leaping out. I am thinking not just of spas and mineral springs, but of organizations and institutions that are in the business of helping us when we are feeling spent or ill or crippled -- hospitals, rest homes, clinics, retreat houses, and the like.
We go at such a clip today, carrying such enormous burdens of stress and responsibility, that we easily become dysfunctional. "Sliding down the razor blade of life" is the way one person put it. Life is tough. Sometimes we break under the pressure. We begin to limp along. Then we go some place for health -- thank God there are such places! -- and, when we are better, we leap out and go home.
But sometimes -- sometimes we become so crippled by the burdens we are carrying that we don't even have the power to limp in. We know that a good rest in a sanatorium would help us, or that we ought to get involved in a church, or that we might find help at AA, but we are simply so tired, and in so deep, that we cannot resolve to do what we need to do and then do it.
A woman recently described for me the state of mind she was in after a series of calamities had struck her. Her business was doing poorly, the bank was pressing her for repayment of a loan, her mother fell ill and had to be hospitalized, and her nephew -- who lived with her -- had an accident on the freeway and totaled her car.
"I felt as if I were out in a swiftly moving river," she said, "and the current was carrying me towards the falls. I kept waiting to go over the edge, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I felt completely helpless!"
This is where the story of the John 5:1-9 speaks to us. He too was helpless. For years, probably, he had sat or lain near the famous pool of Bethzatha, watching others plunge into the waters whenever it stirred. It probably looked like opening hour at a bargain basement sale, with everybody pushing and shoving to get in. But he was too crippled to get in and didn't have anybody to help him.
Know the feeling?
And then Jesus came along. Jesus. The Master. The Son of God.
"Do you want to be healed?" asked Jesus.
Silly question. Doesn't every crippled person?
No. Not at all.
Some people want to remain crippled. Emotionally. In actual fact, they don't want the responsibility of being whole. They have learned to use their problem.
I know a woman who uses her illnesses to get attention from her husband and other members of her family. Whenever the doctor tells her to forget it, that she isn't really ill with the problem she thinks she has, she finds another doctor. It's the only way she can face her life. She wants to be ill.
Maybe this man at the pool had to think about it. His answer was a bit equivocal.
"I don't have anybody to help me. Whenever I limp toward the pool, somebody beats me in. The waters return to normal, and there I am."
Everybody else is leaping home, and he is still limping about.
"Get up," said Jesus. "Take up your mat and walk."
And he did.
Just like that.
He was healed, the Scripture says.
What's it all about?
Life is hard for some people. This man really was a cripple. He had to limp around. He couldn't leap. We shouldn't ever forget how hard things are for some people.
We may be able to breathe all right, but some people have a lot of trouble breathing.
We may have plenty to eat and money in the bank, but some people are starving to death.
We may sleep peacefully at night -- or even in the daytime, for that matter -- but some people toss and turn with anxiety from dark to dawn.
Life is simply hard for some.
But here is the good news of our faith: When people can't make it on their own, God reaches in to help.
This is the story of the Jews in the Old Testament. They were a nation of slaves in Egypt, and God led them out to freedom.
This is the story of the poor and the outcast in Jesus' day. They were on the outside looking in. There was no way they could save themselves. They were treated like dirt by most of society. And God in Jesus came to them, saying, "You have worth in my sight. I will give you love and self-respect and redemption."
The people who are limping around in life, who can't make it into the natural healing pools that seem to help everybody else, God helps so that they are able to leap out and live better lives.
Does this sound radical?
It ought to, because it is the gospel.
I'm afraid we get so rational and callous-minded in our dealing with life in the city -- with traffic and crime and crowds of people and trying to keep our heads above water -- that we forget the truly radical nature of the message of Christ. We want to water it down into a very humanistic, self-help kind of religion, the sort of thing that will not offend the sophisticated intelligence. But we need to remember the words of Paul: "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Of course it sounds foolish to say that God saves those who are limping around so badly they can't save themselves. But that is the gospel in its unadulterated form. God does help us when we are beyond the help of others and beyond helping ourselves.
We Christians tend to get things all backwards. We glorify -- in our churches -- the good, hardworking, sober, decent people who work and worship in our midst. But if we really want to glorify God, we should focus instead on a few of the broken-down, washed-out, ineffectual human beings who were barely able to limp around when God touched them and who, for them, are now leaping around.
This is what church is about, isn't it? It's what the church of Jesus was about -- all those poor vagabond followers He gathered around Him. It's what the church at Corinth was about, if we can tell anything from Paul's letters to them.
The church is a fellowship of those who have limped in, or been carried in, so God can bless them. It is not a society of the perfect and the well-rounded. It is like one of those wards you see in a World War I hospital movie, filled with the walking wounded and the desperately dying.
This is what makes our fellowship in the church special. It is not based on our merit. It is based on God's merit. We only limp in here in order to leap out, in order to hear the Master say, "Take up your mat and walk, because you can do it now."
I wish we could have an old-fashioned testimonial hour and let people all over this sanctuary tell how they limped in and have been leaping about since.
Here would be a woman saying, "I came here when I was feeling rotten about myself because of a broken marriage and troubles with my children. I was as low as I could get. But something happened here, and I began the road to a new life. Compared to the way I was then, I am leaping around today!"
Here would be a man confessing, "I started going to church again when I had lost my job and didn't know where I was going to turn. I found the faith here to go back out there and try again, and to keep trying until things began to go the other way for me. I don't leap very high today, but it's a lot better than it was back then."
Here would be a young person saying, "I only began to get serious about religion when I was feeling bad about myself and confused about my future. What I found here taught me a lot about who I am in the plan of God and what I want to do with my life. I still limp around occasionally, but I know what can make me leap now. I really feel good about myself."
You see what I mean. I know it would be that way, because I talk with a lot of you and know your stories. And it isn't any different here than it is in any other church.
I talked by phone recently with a woman I met in another state several years ago. She was telling me about the valley of despair she had been through. There had been a divorce. One of her children had died. She had been on the point of bankruptcy in a small business she owned. Talk about limping! She was barely able to hold her head up!
"I didn't think I could make it," she said. "Every day seemed darker than the one before it. Then, just as I hit bottom and thought nothing would ever get any better and I might as well end my life, God gave me the gift of prayer. Praying led me back to church. Then everything started to turn around for me. I met a sweet man and got married. My business was saved. Now life is good and I am well, and I am so thankful!"
I have one more thought.
The man in the story, who had been lame for thirty-eight years, had obviously been visiting the pool of Bethzatha for some time. Maybe not for the entire thirty-eight years. But neither was he a stranger to the pool.
Some of you have been coming to this church for a long time, but you have never gotten into the water either. You have been watching other people limp in and leap out, but you haven't been able to get in for yourself.
Maybe it's time you said a little prayer of trust to God and turned your situation over to Him. You could say, "God, I've been limping around here for a long time and I haven't gotten any better. Won't you please touch my life and help me to start leaping?"
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