THE BATH OF WHOLENESS
THIS morning we're going to meditate on a miracle. The word "miracle" is derived from the Latin word miraculum, which means "a little attention grabber." We are drawn to miracles because they are so rare, they are newsworthy. In the Bible there are three great clusters of miracles: Moses and the generation following him; Elijah and the generation following him; and the New Testament dealing with Jesus and the Apostles. Are there miracles outside of the Bible? Yes, but nearly all of them are from Church History, because the Church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. Jesus Himself is the Great Miracle, God become man, the wonder of wonders, so in John's Gospel we find God Incarnate walking about Jerusalem. He was obedient to the Law, therefore He "went up" to celebrate the Passover.
He came to the Pool of Bethesda, Aramaic for "house of mercy." In Hebrew it would be "Beth Chesed." This pool was surrounded by five porches to shelter from the elements all those who patiently waited around it. This pool was a place of hope. The porches were filled with sick and disabled people, those who had no medical solution for what ailed them. Hope brought them to the House of Mercy. God always remembered His covenant with the people of Israel. He did not leave Himself without witness, not only to His power but to His grace. At the House of Mercy, God sent an angel at certain seasons to stir up the water. Once it was moving, the first person to get in would be healed instantly. We have no idea what happened to that pool. After the destruction of Jerusalem, it was never rebuilt. It had served its highest purpose that day when Jesus stood beside it, for it provided a type of Holy Baptism, and led to the One who could truly make people whole. After that, God no longer used it.
On one of the porches Jesus found a disabled man who had been waiting for thirty-eight years to get into Bethesda Pool. Do the math in your head -- yes, he had been waiting there since before Jesus was born. Now Jesus was an adult. He healed the disabled man without using the angel, without putting him into the pool. He merely asked the man, "Do you want to be healed?" Don't think the answer was necessarily obvious. There were those about the city who were content to live on the alms of their neighbors, for whom health would mean the dreadful prospect of having to work, but this man genuinely wanted health. He was outclassed by those less afflicted, so he had little chance of being the first one in. On that day, however, he gained the Savior's compassion. The Great Miracle performed a little miracle. Jesus was already committed to purchasing divine grace with His blood; here He directed that grace to this needy brother.
Who has never been sick? Certainly the experience is universal - in our world fevers burn, wounds become abscessed, headaches hurt. We are limited, and often humbled by our frailty, but sickness does not necessarily mean calamity. It can draw us away from the vanities we otherwise find so distracting. It can force us to pay attention to the eternal. It can cut through our arrogant self-confidence. It can hold up a mirror before us where we see a stranger and sojourner through this passing world. It can lead us to reflect that all is not right, in fact that the world itself is sick and disabled. It might even be terminal, an entrance to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That is one possibility. On the other hand, God might be sharpening our appreciation for what we have, so that when we recover we may be more thankful, and better stewards of what God has placed in our trust. What's more, there is a hell. Jesus warned that man to sin no more lest something worse happen to him. It seems out of place, doesn't it? But Jesus had to say that. Sickness and disability are symptoms of our lost spiritual condition. The dreadful consequence of sin is eternal damnation, which is far worse than thirty-eight years of disability.
God has provided for this! Just as He provided Bethesda for the physically ill, so He has provided the Better Bethesda, the Fountain of Life, for the regeneration and healing of mankind. As the pool in ancient Jerusalem applied God's grace to the body, so Holy Baptism applies His grace to the soul, washing it with the blood of Jesus Christ. Those who call Baptism a human work err badly. It is a commandment of the Lord, which becomes the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the real worker in this Sacrament. He alone can regenerate a sinner. Jesus is Himself the Fountain of Life, and in this Sacrament He meets people. Do not despise the physical means He uses. Remember if that sick man had not been seeking to get into that physical pool, he would never have met the Lord. He would have been crippled all his life. As the Church administers Holy Baptism today, Jesus heals the sickness of sin. It is for us to avail ourselves of what God has given us, not to despise it because we don't think it is spiritual enough.
The cross of Jesus opened the Fountain of Life and released its salutary flow. He alone took pain and death voluntarily. He was born without sin, but subject to death because He was fully human. As He descended into the pool of human misery, so He calls us to follow Him into the depths of sorrow and repentance, into the substitute death of Holy Baptism, and through it to a resurrection like His. Thus He makes us holy. We will have to wait until He returns for the general resurrection. Until that day, the Great Tribulation will continue on earth. For the sake of his chosen saints, God will shorten the days of the Tribulation. Finally, the trumpet will sound, the sleeping will awake, and the Holy Spirit will transform our bodies. Like the man by the pool, we cannot re-create or renew ourselves, but Jesus will come again and make us eternally whole. Then we will see why He is called the Firstborn from the dead, for all of His saints will be raised with Him. The evil will also be raised for punishment.
Baptism is not magic. It makes you a Christian, but it does not necessarily make you a good Christian. No, God has not placed any demands on you that you need to fulfill to merit eternal life, but as a bad Christian you are always taking the risk that your compromises with evil might some day cross the line and become irrevocable, but there is a Bethesda for you. Like the Prodigal, you can return to your Father's house, the Church, where your pastor lifts up the cross in preaching, where God through the pastor offers you Holy Absolution, where Jesus feeds you with His flesh and blood offered as the True Sacrifice for sins. The cure for sin is always the blood of Jesus. Neither do you have to race against the other sinners for it. There is plenty of mercy to go around. AMEN.
Rev. Lloyd E. Gross