Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Eye of the Storm – Sermon 9th May 2010

John 5:1-9

Today is the start of Christian Aid week. Remember their slogan: “We believe in life before death”? Isn’t that just exactly what Jesus is inviting the man at the poolside to? Let’s think about that as we contemplate today’s Gospel reading.

It’s been an interesting few days, hasn’t it? And you thought that by now, the election would be over and we’d all be thinking and talking about other things! Or perhaps you didn’t; I suspect that lots of us harboured the suspicion that this was going to be an unusually complex election to sort out, even if we didn’t quite anticipate the corker it’s turned out to be. There has been a lot going on since Friday morning, true enough. It was fascinating to watch the demonstration outside the Liberal Democrat high-heidyins’ meeting yesterday, of about a thousand people calling for their aspirations for change in the very electoral system, which had led them to vote Lib-Dem on Thursday, to be respected. Meanwhile, members of the Conservative party were calling for their gains in seats to be translated forthwith into actual power. Yet in a sense, maybe Mr. Brown caught the mood of it all best, by simply going home. There are people talking, there are flurries of activity in many places, but in a sense, this is still the eye of the storm. The campaign itself blew over us for a month; soon the pressures of real political life will start everything up again. But for now, we are in the eye of the storm.

Yet there is this one certainty, at least. We can’t stay here. The global economic crisis won’t wait, the huge questions about the way in which we are represented by those who make our laws and govern us won’t wait; the world won’t wait. Perhaps there’s another candidate for a certainty, though, in all this. Perhaps we had to come to this strange moment of stunned calm. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few days, the world will start to insist that we move on from here. But perhaps for now, everything has to be frozen. Everything has to stop. 

I’d like to hold those two thoughts together for a moment. We have to stop, stop still. But we can’t stay here. Because they are at the very centre of this compelling story of a man who meets Jesus at a poolside, in John chapter 5. There’s something about it that’s vast beyond the 147 words it takes to tell it – or 182 if you add in the missing verse 4, which most modern versions leave out; even though it explains why it was such a big issue for the sick people at the poolside to try to be first into the water, it’s probably added to the original text of John. Here it is from the Authorized Version: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

Thirty-eight years at the poolside, and this man has never been first into the waters. Then one day he looks up, and there is a man he doesn’t know, but who seems to know him very well indeed. And suddenly, everything stops. It isn’t just the regular, listless ticking over of life (barely life, in fact, really just existence) at the poolside. This freezing of time, this elongating of a moment, is something very different. This isn’t, absolutely isn’t, “nothing happening”. Something is very much happening, and the freezing of time into a timeless moment is a huge part of what it is.

It’s an encounter, for one thing, with truth. In Jesus Christ, the truth makes space for itself, and insists on being heard. In Jesus, this man has to face up to some really hard truth about how things are with him. He’s hidden it from himself, but Jesus can see it plainly, and now the man has to look at it himself.

Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time…

And he has. Thirty-eight years. And you have to ask yourself: why? In thirty-eight years, was there no way he could have got himself into the pool when the water came alive, and the chance to change everything was suddenly there once again? Or got someone else to help him?

Or is he too comfortable?

Is that such a shocking thought? In here, within the five porticoes of the pool, is a world he understands. Out there is a huge world, that has changed thirty-eight yearsworth since he last had anything to do with it. He would have to start from scratch, he would have to rebuild his life, everything would be a terrifying challenge. Surely we can all see that even this half-life beside the pool, dull, inhibited, barely even a life, among the slowly changing population of the sick, had something huge going for it, as far as this man was concerned. It wasn’t scary. He knew how it worked.

So Jesus hits the nail on the head, when he asks “Do you want to be healed?

What did “healing” offer him, in comparison with that?

And now – because in this frozen, infinitely elongated moment at the poolside, he must have known, at some deep level, something of why this strange man was asking him this – now, there arises the question: what, in comparison with the life he has now, is Jesus offering him?

No wonder this moment has become so huge. No wonder this instant has telescoped, as far as the paralyzed man at the poolside is concerned, until it fills the whole world, and freezes it. It has to be big enough for this man to realize something absolutely gigantic. Something that, nonetheless, fits into four words.

He can’t stay here…

[Hymn 513 Courage, brother, do not stumble]

So our man at the poolside has been brought by his encounter with Jesus Christ to a moment in which everything stops. He is at the eye of the storm – or rather, the eye of the storm is passing over him. And it isn’t going to be like this forever. We said: four little words.

He can’t stay here…

He has to go from this moment in one direction or another. Even if he stays at the poolside for the rest of his life, even if he settles for the unchallenging, the safe and the known, that will mean making a choice and leaving this moment, because it will have passed forever.

That’s the nature of the encounter with Jesus Christ, always. It creates a moment. And that’s what our worship does, in fact is, here, today, and every Sunday. In it, there is a moment of encounter. And everything stops. We are still the same people we were when we came in through the door. Our lives out there are the same, our difficulties and worries and hopes and joys are the same.

And we know them so well! They are what we have lived with for years, now. The ramifications of decisions we made, and decisions we then made about the way the first decisions turned out, and other decisions we made that never felt like decisions because we never felt we had a choice. And decisions that were made for us, and all those things that we don’t seem to have any choice about at all, or any decisions to make.

But here, for a moment, we are made to stop. There is an encounter. A moment when there is something here to be grasped, because there is someone here to be met. Someone who challenges us, and confronts us, and makes us ask hard questions about ourselves. Who are we? Why are we here? Do we want to be here? Conversely: do we want to be healed, to be able to leave this moment in a different way than just by flopping back down into the way things have been , all these years? This man’s paralysis is our paralysis. So Jesus’ question to him is Christ’s question to us. To me. “Do you want to be healed?”

Do I want life to be a pattern of samenesses, or do I want life to be a difficult, demanding, serious engagement with the reality out there? Do I want life to be safe existence, or dangerous, complicated, honest living.

And suddenly, we see one of the things that faith is.

Faith is reengagement with life as life in God. Faith is living, in God, as we should be living, not as we have to live, or as it’s safe or prudent to live. Faith is finding our security in God alone, and not in risk-avoiding timidity. Faith is living as Jesus lived. Faith is living as God wants us to live, in the real world. And that is a very risky business indeed, in the world we live in. That world isn’t the world we were living in just three years ago, before the financial crisis and the Credit Crunch. It certainly isn’t the world we were living in ten years ago, before 9/11. Even the future looks different, and much bleaker, from where we are now.

Doesn’t contemplating all that make you want to find the nearest little enclosed pool and just sit, paralysed, within its five porticoes, away from the world out there, and praying that it never finds its way in here?

And Jesus comes by, and says “You can’t stay here…”

You can’t stay here, because that wouldn’t be life but death, the denial of life. Come out there with me, says Jesus.Experience life before death. Then experience life overcoming death. Come out there with God as your only security, come out there and live, out of faith, in the midst of real life. He says it to the paralysed man at the pool, and he says it to us, now. You can’t stay here. You have to go out there. You know you do. Come with me.

I think that that may be the key to our understanding, as Christ’s Church in the world, what this weird post-election weekend really means. People are frustrated because they feel that something should be happening. Conservative supporters seem to feel that they should be forming a government already. Liberal Democrats, along with others who are desperate to see electoral reform at Westminster, seem to feel that a moment might be slipping away in which change is possible, and that something should be done while the chance is there. Labour supporters are presumably feeling that Gordon Brown is a pretty good emblem of where they are placed; officially in power, but for the moment with no way of deciding the outcome of the election process, because other people have to talk now. Scottish Nationalist supporters must be wondering why a Scotland with its own government in Holyrood is having to wait for a political process in London to get underway. Greens must be wondering how a situation like this helps deal with the ecological issues they see as desperately important. The financial markets are jittery because they don’t know what’s happening. Everybody is uneasy, because everything seems to have stopped. But of course everything hasn’t stopped. This strange pause, this moment in which normal time is frozen, is perhaps something that we the Church alone can really explain, because it can only be understood in the light of faith, and of God.

It’s a moment of decision. Millions of us are being forced to think where we want to go from here. And millions of us are being made to come to terms with the fact that we can’t stay here. At some point, we are, each one of us, going to have to pick a portico and leave. And things won’t be the same again. But real life will have started up again, and we’ll be out in the real world again, and we will be back into the business of living out life in that real world. We each need to decide where we are, where we are going, right now.

But for us, the Church, living life in that real world is what faith is all about. Finding God not in the safety and security of “in here”, but in the rough and tumble of “out there.” Finding God in the challenge to affirm by the way we live in it, the decisions we take, that this is God’s world. Politics, for the Christian, is the way we live responsibly in the world. Everything is politics. If our life in the world is to be a discipleship of Jesus, then however we voted on Thursday, our own personal politics should be a seeking of God’s justice in the world, as we are given to see it.

And we can be sure of this. If for us the world has stopped this weekend, then Christ is in the encounter. And Christ is challenging us as his Church, and us individually as members of it, to get out and get involved in that world, and to do it in his faith, and in his name.

Today is the start of Christian Aid week. Remember their slogan: “We believe in life before death”? Isn’t that just exactly what Jesus is inviting the man at the poolside to?


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