5th Sunday of Easter May 10, 2020
8, 38:1-4, Worship Supplement 2000 #777, 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
God grant to each of us not only the gifts of grace, mercy, and peace, but an ongoing understanding of, and appreciation for, those incredible blessings. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
When you hear the word “pathetic,” what is your immediate, initial reaction? In other words, is it positive or negative? If you hear that something is pathetic, does it make you want to give it a big hug and protect and provide for it, or does it conjure up feelings of revulsion and loathing?
It depends, right? “Pathetic” can be either the poor, well-meaning, hard-working soul who just seems to be met by one disaster after another—none of which seem to be the result of his or her own foolishness. Or it can be the soul that has little or nothing, but is content. That’s the kind of “pathetic” that compassionate human beings want to comfort and protect.
But there’s another sort of “pathetic” that routinely elicits almost the opposite response, even from those whose hearts long to come to the aid of the down and out. This is the sort of pathetic seen in the ungrateful slob who has it all, but appreciates nothing. Or the mom who torments and injures the children that she should naturally want to protect and nurture. It’s what we see in those who seem bound and determined to destroy their own lives through a never-ending series of horrible decisions, or who wrap themselves in a cloak of self-pity because life doesn’t seem to be giving them everything they want and therefore deserve. For that sort of “pathetic” we tend to have little pity.
You decide which sort of pathetic we encounter in our text for this morning. Better still, note what happens when the pathetic encounters the divine. Our text is God’s Word recorded in John’s Gospel, the 5th Chapter:
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
These are God’s words. They are therefore perfect, from first to last. How pathetic it would be for us, once we come to recognize the source and value of these words, to ignore what they teach. On the contrary, that our God would richly bless us through the study of his perfect words this morning, so we pray, “Sanctify us by the truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Most of us would think of the poor, afflicted soul in our text as the lovable kind of pathetic. There is just something in us that wants to help folks like this. We find ourselves wishing we could have been there for him—scooping him up when the waters of the pool were stirred and helping him in so that he might be relieved of his seemingly interminable suffering. We would probably feel even more strongly if we could see the poor man with our own eyes—if we could witness his misery and ongoing suffering.
But how do you explain the fact that we typically feel no such empathy for those that God himself sees as pathetic? How is it that we tend to feel so little compassion for those who do not know and believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, those whose feet are therefore not on the path to eternal life? How is it that we do not focus our lives on “the encounter” where sinners meet Savior?
Part of the answer is that we are indeed guided most powerfully by what we can actually see and verify with our eyes. Those who are living in unbelief often appear to be anything but needy. In fact, they often appear to have it all. They often seem healthy, successful, satisfied, and content. They don’t look like they need our help, but they do.
That’s exactly why Jesus didn’t make his Great Commission to the Christian Church something like, “Go and help the poor and sick of every nation, feeding and clothing them.” He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The difference is that we don’t tend to see what God sees. We don’t notice what God notices. We don’t recognize pathetic as God recognizes it, and the desperate need for “the encounter.”
Dictionaries define “pathetic” as “miserably inadequate.” In the case of unbelief, God sees every single human being—apart from Jesus Christ—as just that: miserably inadequate. Not only is every human being unworthy, they have neither the power nor the means to correct their own problem. In fact, unlike the man lying year after year near the Pool of Bethesda, human beings naturally experience no desire to be healed. Unbelievers are dead in trespasses and sins, which means they don’t have any idea there is even a problem. They may have a vague notion that “all is not right with the man upstairs,” but it typically goes no farther than that. They certainly can’t fix the problem on their own, even if their conscience told them all was not well.
What was it, by the way, with that Pool of Bethesda? When Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” The man obviously believed that the pool periodically possessed an amazing power to heal.
Not to be too hard on the guy, but that was a pathetic answer—in every conceivable way. It was pathetic in that it makes our hearts fairly ache in sympathy for him. As far as we know he may have been trying to be first into that pool without success for 38 years. More to the point this morning is the fact that he gave such an answer to the God-man Jesus, the Creator and Savior of the world. At the very moment when he was experiencing his own encounter with his Savior, he was yearning for something else. The crippled man found himself in the presence of the Son of God, who was offering him both healing and life, yet the man insisted on looking not to Christ as the provider, but to his own struggle to gain what he wanted.
This account is actually therefore a microcosm of exactly how every single human being naturally approaches both his God and his own hope for salvation. Man is always most comfortable relying on his own efforts—even in the face of repeated, perfectly consistent, failure. On our own, we know no other way, even though the way we naturally keep trying ends always and only in failure. Having never once succeeded, the man in our text was evidently perfectly content to keep trying the same thing. Why? Because he knew of no other way. Even when he encountered Jesus, who offered him another way, he hadn’t the faintest idea that Jesus was referring to anything other than the pool and the man’s own feeble, fruitless efforts.
That is exactly how pathetic every human being is apart from Jesus Christ—pathetic in the dictionary definition sense of “miserably inadequate.” God sees man’s futile attempt to pay for his own sins, and thereby to make himself worthy of God’s love, as pathetic, as “miserably inadequate.” Though the Savior has great compassion for those who exist in this state, and longs to save them, he will sentence all who die in this unbelief to the fires of hell on Judgment Day. All who imagine that they are or were good enough, all on their own, to earn heaven will be condemned without mercy. All such are represented by the cripple in our text, who struggled in vain for 38 years to supply his own cure.
The good news here is not only that Jesus cured the poor wretch in our text, but that Jesus cured every poor pathetic wretch, including each of us. Think of the joy that man experienced when Jesus finally cured him. Think of the weight that was lifted and how his spirit must have soared. That’s our joy, only on a much deeper, more profound level. Yet to truly appreciate what we have been given we first need to come to terms with just how pathetic we were, and would be again, without Jesus Christ. What we could never accomplish, Jesus did for us—all on his own. On the cross, he provided the goodness that paid for our sins. Every single one of them. You and I are forgiven, healed, declared to be righteous and sinless by God the Father himself. That declaration the Father confirmed by raising Jesus from the dead on Easter morning—God the Father’s eternal, immutable declaration that the sum total of all sins has been paid in full. We who were once utterly pathetic in his sight have now been transformed into his holy children. That was our encounter—when our God rescued us through the power of his Word.
Yet our text leaves us with a subtle warning that you may have missed, one last hint of pathetic: “And that day was the Sabbath.” You may recall how the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus’ enemies, would latch onto this one fact to the exclusion of all others. They would ignore the fact that an amazing miracle had obviously been preformed. They would miss completely the fact that the man’s fruitless struggle exactly paralleled their own futile struggle to earn heaven themselves. They would stubbornly push from their minds the irrefutable evidence that Jesus was immeasurably more than the fraud that they tried endlessly to make him out to be. All this they ignored, focusing only on the fact that this astonishing miracle, this amazing, life-changing encounter, had taken place on the Sabbath. In their minds, this one fact invalidated the whole event as just another violation of the Law.
Understand not only how pathetic their animosity was, but that that same evil still resides in your own old Adam, your own sinful flesh. Jesus underscored the ongoing danger every Christian faces when later he sought out the man that he had healed and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The “worse” thing would, of course, have been dying in unbelief. Know then that living in sin carries the terrible power to destroy that astounding miracle that has been performed also in you. The Holy Spirit performed in you an incredible miracle when he brought you to faith in Jesus Christ. You now trust that your sin debt has been paid, but sin still carries the terrible power to destroy the faith, the miracle, that God has created in you. How tragic to allow sin to destroy God’s holy work in us, to rob us of the gift we’ve been given. How truly “pathetic.”
Abandon then self and sin, and walk instead in the pure joy of the holy perfection that is yours as a child of God, through faith alone in Jesus Christ. And don’t forget to thank your Lord every single day for the ongoing miracle of your own personal faith and salvation. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.