A few years ago, Alan Deutschman wrote an article for Fast Company entitled “Change or Die” that has been referenced in the years since by leaders of all sorts. The article deals with a persistent problem with human beings: we’re resistent to change.
Deutschman puts it this way:
“What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?”
If your life, your career, your closest relationships were on the line, would you change so you could save them?
We would like to think that the answer would be yes. Especially because we’re Christians! We want to be able to say that we willingly follow the guidance of God’s Spirit.
But Deutchman says that humans are persistently resistant to change. The odds of us actually changing our behavior when it really matters is about nine to one. 90% of the time, we as human beings continue on our current trajectory, even if that path leads to disaster.
Now, Deutchman’s article is primarily concerned with change in the business world—whether or not a business will adapt to a changing market around them. But this problem manifests itself in every sphere of human life. Doctors tell us, “you need to eat more vegetables and exercise every day.” We might try it for a day and then decide that we liked our old lifestyle a lot better. Church leaders say, “you need to do something to reach new people in your community.” And churches continue to do the attend only to the needs of their members. We tell family members and friends, “you need to get help. You can’t keep living this way.” And we eventually give up saying anything because they’re never going to listen to us.
Our default strategy when change is needed, especially in the church, tends to be some variation on the title of Deutchman’s article: change or die.
We often try to instill the “fear of hell” in people. We might not use the strategies of the sidewalk prophets with their sandwich board signs and gospel tracts, shouting at people like John the Baptist that they need to “flee from the wrath to come.” Still, our default method of sharing our faith tends to be judgment.
We share a way of life that revolves around the church. We wonder about why others don’t think this is as important as we do.
We might ask accusingly – Why don’t you come to church? Why don’t you act the way we expect you to act when you do come?
Even worse, our individual politics and opinions become so primary in our lives that people think, “I don’t agree with them, so the church must not be a place where I can belong.”
All of us can be tempted to assume the position of judge of the universe. We can be tempted to think that, because we are in the church and know the way of life, we can just tell others to come to church, to join in Jesus’s mission, and they’ll want to do it.
We might include some fear of God’s punishment, some judgment for their behavior, just for good measure.
But you can ask your doctor if that strategy usually works. They’ve tried it with us, telling us that we need to live differently so that we might avoid illness and disease. It doesn’t usually work. Fear isn’t as powerful of a force as we might imagine.
Here’s the problem with the human condition: left to our own devices, we choose death over life, every time. We choose to take the well-worn path of sameness rather than venturing down the new, uncertain path of healing. This is the condition we call sin, the disease that affects all humanity. And no amount of fear can cure us of this disease.
It’s the same condition that affects the man Jesus encounters at the pool called Bethzatha in John 5. Sin and death has held this man in bondage for thirty-eight years.
Now, we need to be careful here. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Jesus attributes this man’s paralyzed condition to any particular transgression. It is not as if he said a bad word to his parents in his youth and was struck down by God with this paralyzing ailment. That is not how God works.
Yet, what has afflicted this man, in addition to his physical ailment, is a debilitating psychological condition which seems to have robbed him of the will to find any healing in the midst of his condition.
He is at the place where healing can be found—a pool that was believed to grant healing to the first to enter it when the waters stirred up—but others have gotten in his way. When the waters were stirred up with healing power, he was unable to get into them. Sitting there year after year, imagine how many others he has seen come and go through those waters.
It would be easy for us to cast judgment on this man. Why wasn’t he more assertive about getting into the healing waters? Why didn’t he speak up for himself and provoke someone to help him at some point in all the years he had been sitting there?
Instead, let’s try to understand this man’s condition.
He is like one who is sitting in the ER waiting room without ever being called in to see the doctor.
He’s a sin-sick person walking by a church without ever going in to hear of God’s grace.
He’s like a homeless person asking for money outside a place of business—knowing that he could never get a job there because of his condition.
He’s a person with a substance use disorder who is revived time and time again but won’t take the steps into recovery.
This man has been discouraged for so long, without the possibility of healing, that all he can see in front of him is more of the same sad state.
The power of sin in this world does this to us. It causes us to lose the will to change, to find healing, to be made well.
Fortuntely for this pitiable man, there was this guy named Jesus who was beginning his ministry. We heard his mission statement from Luke 4: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. In John’s gospel, Jesus has already performed two signs that fulfill this good news: water into wine (cause for celebration!) and the healing of a government official’s son (the best news!).
Jesus had been in Galilee performing these miracles, but a Jewish festival brought him up to Jerusalem. It is on this occasion—the Sabbath day of a religious festival—that this man finally has the opportunity to exit the waiting room and see the doctor. Finally, he encounters one who knows his illness and has the right treatment plan to make him well. His 38-year struggle, including many years just sitting by the pool called Bethzatha, is about to end triumphantly.
John tells us that Jesus knew this man had been there for a long time. He was smelly, surrounded by trash. His mat was old and soiled from never being washed. This man is the kind of person we walk quickly past in order to get away from.
There is only one thing Jesus wants to know. He only asks him one question. Jesus doesn’t go spouting off some treatise about how his life would be better if he only started making better decisions. He doesn’t shame the man—surely he’s experienced enough shame already.
Jesus simply asks: “Do you want to be made well?”
This is the question that opens up the possibility for healing. This is the invitation into new life. Suddenly the possibility of hope is within reach!
Notice the man does not respond to Jesus’s question by saying, “yes, sir, I would like to be made well.” He gives excuses for why he has not been made well already: there’s no one to put him in the pool. Others can get in the pool at the moment of healing faster than he can.
Jesus is frugal with his words. He doesn’t start preaching at the man. He doesn’t blame him for his condition. Jesus simply offers the man the words of salvation: “stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
At once, this man who had been suffering under the weight of his ailment and the discouragement that came along with it was healed. He who could not make himself well was made well by the one who came into the world to save people like him.
In our faith we often speak of Jesus doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. On the cross, Jesus took on our sins and died in our place so that we might all be raised to new life.
This story of healing in John’s gospel reminds us that this new life, this salvation isn’t just about where we go when we die. It’s not primarily about escaping the wrath that is to come, even though it does save us from the powers of sin and death.
Salvation is about being raised to new life—life that begins when Jesus says the words “stand up and walk” to us and life that never truly ends.
No amount of fearmongering will make well those in our community who suffer under a multitude of burdens. It won’t free us from our afflictions either. The only one who can make us well is Jesus Christ himself.
He’s the one who asks everyone on this earth, “do you want to be made well?” And even when we complain and enter into Jesus’s life kicking and screaming–Jesus makes us well anyway! He unshakles us from our discouragement and sin
Jesus makes us well. Jesus gives us new life—no matter our age, our willingness, our sin, our limitations. Jesus gives us the hope and strength to get up and walk, so that we might follow him.
Romans 8 reminds us: “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus! There are no grudges. No judgments of not being good enough. No accusation of guilt! There are no berating lectures about wasted time.
God has done for us through Jesus what we could not do. God has through Jesus Christ reminded us that we can be made well. We can be led to walk according to the Spirit of God.
While we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), sitting at the edge of the healing pool, not bothering to get in… Christ came into our life and gave us new life!
This is part of what we mean by “saving grace.” Having come into our lives, showing us our weakness, Jesus brings us healing and ushers us into new life.
God doesn’t shame us with the fear of hell. God doesn’t shout at us: change or die. God gives us, through Christ, a glimpse of heaven. God declares us to be something we are not yet. God offers us new life.
This is God’s gift, as Eph 2:8 says, for us and the world. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God!”
Church — what would it mean to share this gift? To extend this healing love of Jesus to those who most need it?
Maybe it means asking, in words that fit the conversation and relationship we have with someone, “do you want to be made well?” What is it that you need power from outside of yourself to heal?
Listen to their response. They may say “of course, but I tried it before and I fell right back into the wrong crowd, the bad habits, the hopeless despair.”
That’s when the power of Jesus is needed. The awakening and saving grace that shows those who encounter it that their past doesn’t determine their future. The grace that shows them that they can be made well.
Look at Jesus’s healing work and see what is possible! Good news is given to the poor. Those who can’t see any hope for tomorrow are given new sight to see with hope! Those who are in bondage to illness and addiction are set free and given new life! The oppressed are given freedom!
What would it look like if we had faith that God could really do these things? That God could bring new life to our church, to our families, to our coworkers and neighbors.
That healing work starts when our eyes are opened to what is possible through the healing and saving words of Jesus “stand up and walk!”
That may the kind of healing that we need too. This man had lost faith in the possibility of healing/wholeness/new life. Maybe we have too.
Do you want to be made well? Do you want the faith that God can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine? Do you want a new life of hope, led by God’s Spirit?
Stand up!, Jesus says.
Pick up your mat.