Bless This Mess
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 15, 2020
Third Sunday of Lent
John 5: 1-14 (CEB)
After this there was a Jewish festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate in the north city wall is a pool with the Aramaic name Bethsaida. It had five covered porches, 3and a crowd of people who were sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed sat there. 5A certain man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.”
8Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
10The Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It’s the Sabbath; you aren’t allowed to carry your mat.”
11He answered, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’”
12They inquired, “Who is this man who said to you, ‘Pick it up and walk’?”
13The man who had been cured didn’t know who it was, because Jesus had slipped away from the crowd gathered there.
14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said, “See! You have been made well. Don’t sin anymore in case something worse happens to you.”
Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
Here is this man, crippled and ill, lying by the pool of Bethsaida for 38 years. Along comes Jesus, who by now has a reputation as a successful healer, and he goes to this man and asks this question, “Do you want to get well?” Now, for me, there are a couple of interesting matters about this encounter. First of all, how many of you have ever been asked by the doctor, “Do you want to get well?” If we’re sick, the doctor takes a look at us and goes to work, right? I guess it’s just sort of a presumption under which we operate; if we’re sick, we want to be well.
Here’s the second thing that’s interesting about this interaction between the sick man and Jesus—according to John’s record, there were a lot of “sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed” sitting by that same pool. I wonder why it was that Jesus chose to approach this man. But what’s really fascinating to me is the fact that the man’s response to Jesus’ question is just a bunch of excuses, and still Jesus heals him! Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” And the man responds, “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.” After 38 years of being sick, why didn’t the man just say, “Yes! Yes, I want to get well! I want it desperately. It’s all I’ve wanted for nearly four decades!”
We are now about halfway through the season of Lent. And through this period of forty days plus six Sundays leading up to Easter, we are considering the messiness of our lives—how things got messy, and how the mess can be cleaned up. As we move toward Easter, we will be reminded of how God has come in Christ Jesus to make us new, to clean us, to restore us, to redeem us, and to pull us out of the mess we have made. But in order to get the mess cleaned up, in order to be redeemed and restored, we have to acknowledge that that’s what we want. We need to declare our need for redemption, and then we have to open ourselves to the possibility of change, even a total transformation of our lives. Here’s the thing about entering into life with Christ, the new life which we celebrate as we remember Christ’s resurrection each Easter, is not just about giving up some bad habit or a little character defect, it is about the journey of a lifetime through which we come to be the people that God has made us to be.
I’m sure most of you have at least seen the signs that say, “Bless This Mess.” Maybe some of you even have such a sign hanging somewhere in your home, or maybe your office. One of my friends has a “Bless this Mess” sign hanging in her very messy kitchen. A few years ago, I sat in the kitchen talking with her while our kids played elsewhere in the house. I was admittedly a bit disgusted, so when I spotted that sign, I asked her about it—as casually as possible, of course. She sort of laughed about it and responded that she used to pray that she could be a cleaner or more organized person, but when she saw that sign she decided that maybe her prayer was wrong. She said, “Now I pray that God will just bless the mess.” I don’t know if God was blessing that mess or not, but it was pretty obvious that she was giving the Lord plenty of opportunity!
When we think about the mess in our lives, if our prayer is that God would bless the mess, we are basically just asking God to rubber stamp our problems, to endorse our bad habits. We are saying to God, we want things to be better, but we don’t really want to change. “Rather than seeking transformation and surrendering our way to God’s design for life, we ask God to ‘bless this mess.’” There are major problems with such an attitude. For one thing, in asking God to bless the mess, we are saying it’s going to continue or that we are going to try and handle it ourselves. Neither of those realities is acceptable. If our lives are a mess, we need to acknowledge the mess, we need to express our deep longing for change, and then we need to turn it all over to God – not for blessing, but for transformation. If we just want God to “bless the mess,” or if we decide we are capable of handling it on our own, then ultimately the mess will just take over (which it definitely had in my friend’s kitchen). “That’s the nature of sin.” But if we want to overcome, we have to undergo transformation. And “[r]eal change requires power that we don’t have on our own. It’s an act of surrender and” an earnest longing for God’s help.
There’s a story about a man who was on his way to Syria. “I think it’s fair to call him an extremist. The man had strong convictions about his faith and no tolerance for infidels. He strictly adhered to his religion. He worked to put citizens in jail who do not practice the religion common to his country. On at least one occasion he incited a mob to kill a man because of the man’s religious beliefs. No arrest, no hearing—they just stoned the man to death in an open field. Like religious extremists everywhere, he was not open to conversation, correction, or debate about what he saw as the truth. He was hard…he was a total mess.”
This guy’s story is recorded in the Book of Acts. His name was Saul of Tarsus. As Saul was traveling to Damascus in Syria, Jesus appeared to Saul in a vision and asked why Saul was persecuting him. That was the beginning of Saul’s conversion. Jesus changed Saul’s life. We know him now as the Apostle Paul. He wrote letters that fill a good portion of our New Testament. He taught people about Christ and founded churches all around the Mediterranean. If God can change that guy’s life that radically, God can transform any of us. After his conversion, Paul reflected in a letter to the Christians in Rome, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” No one can escape sin. But, speaking from his own experience, Paul acknowledged that we are all a mess, and yet Christ can freely redeem us through his justifying grace. When we allow for change in our lives, Christ can get things cleaned up!
If you all remember, last week we talked about prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before us. We reflected on the image of God as portrayed in Michelangelo’s famous painting “The Creation of Adam,” and how God is very nearly lunging out of heaven in an effort to reach and touch Adam. This is prevenient grace, God reaching and stretching for us. Prevenient grace helps us understand our need for change, this is the grace of God at work in our lives in such a way that it awakens in us an awareness of our need for God. Prevenient place brings us to a place where we might say, “Oh, I need to reach out to God!”
But what Paul mentioned in his letter to the Romans is justifying grace. Justifying grace is the grace by which God is able to break the power of sin in our lives. Justifying grace is the grace of God that becomes available to us when we reach back toward God with a deep desire for change. Justifying grace is the grace that transforms us, that takes what is messy and cleans it up, redeeming us and restoring us. And only God, in God’s infinite grace, can do that.
So back to that man at the pool in Bethsaida and that question from Jesus, “Do you want to get well?” This is a critical question for the man because it requires he acknowledge his illness. The first step to redemption and restoration is recognizing that our lives are a mess. In Jesus’ question was the implication that Jesus had a cure for the sickness, but first the man had to admit that he was interested in being cured. He had to be willing to do what Jesus asked of him. “This is the partnership that the gift of grace offers. There is the hope and confidence that God can deliver us, and there is the covenant we enter” that we will live according to God’s direction.
I realize that we have an aversion to admitting that we are wrong. Confession is a really hard thing for us humans; it is difficult to bring to light the dark stain of sin in our lives. We also don’t like to ask for help. For some reason, we perceive that as a weakness. But here’s what we need to realize this Lent; our lives are a mess, and our own efforts to set things right have gotten us nowhere. But we must move toward a new way of life. We must allow for drastic change and total transformation. There is something important that we must remember and act on each and every day: God doesn’t want to bless our mess. God wants to fix it, with our help. Christ is the healer. Only God has the power to transform our lives. The Savior alone has made it possible for us to be cleansed and purified. God is Christ Jesus is the only one with the ability to redeem and restore us, no matter the mess we have made. And God is ready to get started. Are you?