So today is my thirty-ninth birthday. For most people it is probably not a very significant milestone, except by virtue of being only one year away from the big 4-0. I myself am relieved to turn 39, or rather to no longer be 38. Thirty-eight has this particular connotation for me:
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda… Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed… and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.
One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5.2-6)
“Do you want to get well?” It seems like a rhetorical question, if not a stupid one. If you have a broken leg or cancer or a cold don’t you want to get well? Isn’t it a no-brainer? This man has apparently been waiting by this pool for 38 years as an invalid… obviously he wants to get well, right?
Some things aren’t as cut and dry as they seem. First of all, Jesus doesn’t ask stupid or rhetorical questions. It is a serious question and he wants an honest answer. We would expect the invalid to respond with a heartfelt “yes!” whether he realized who Jesus was or not. But instead of giving Jesus a straight answer, this is what he says:
“Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (John 5.7)
He gives Jesus an excuse. He doesn’t tell Jesus if or why he wants to be healed; he tells him why he can’t be. And he blames it on somebody else, in fact the 38 other people that had presumably been healed right in front of him over the years. This is a man who believes in miracles – he has witnessed many – he just doesn’t believe them for himself.
How I relate to this fellow. I would love to say I have the tenacity of the woman with the bleeding issue who pushed her way through the crowd just to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe. She had gone from doctor to doctor for 12 years with no success, and still she maintained the unwavering expectation that just a touch from Jesus would heal her. And it did. What a woman of faith. (Luke 8:43-48)
But I must admit I tend to be more like the man at the pool – offering excuses and deflecting the question. As much as I want to respond to the question, “Do you want to get well?” with a “yes”, I seem to respond with a “yes, but…”
Yes, but you don’t understand.
Yes, but it’s so hard.
Yes, but I’m so tired.
Yes, but it’s not fair.
Yes, but I can’t.
I feel like that man, but my paralysis is of a different kind. I am paralysed by fear, by anxiety, by depression, by despair. I have spent 38 years afraid. 38 years telling myself why I need to be afraid, why I will always be anxious, why I can’t help being depressed. 38 years paralysed beside the healing waters making excuses.
Thirty-eight represents that pointed question and my pathetic answers. Thirty-eight years on the sidelines are enough.
So I will say, “yes, Jesus. I want to be made well.” What does it mean to be made well? I have a hard time even imagining a life not ruled by fear, a life where my faith overcomes that fear and brings peace and joy. But Jesus came that I may have joy in this life, and have it in abundance. (John 10.10) I can’t even imagine this kind of life. I am so grateful we serve a God that does not rely on our own understanding, but a God “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3.20) And when the negative self-talk and doubts and ruminations threaten to bring out the “buts”, I will say “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
As much as I would love Jesus to say, as he did to the woman who was bleeding, “My daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace,” (Luke 8:48) I don’t know if that I how I am to be made well – in an instance. Perhaps true healing and restoration for me is not simply an anxiety-free life where I happily hop on planes and ride up and down glass elevators, but rather it is a journey of letting the Word and grace and love of God seep into my soul to become my reality. When the moment of fear comes I am able to say with confidence, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of what then shall I fear?” (Psalm 27.1) When the old despair threatens to creep back in I will know that the joy of the Lord is my strength. (Nehemiah 8.10) It is an awakening, a realization that even when my flesh is rebelling and my mind is full of doubt that I truly can do “all things in Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4.13)
Thirty-eight was the question. Thirty-nine will be my response – an answer I will likely need to repeat every day for the rest of my life – I will need to say it with authority amid whispers of doubt and shadows of despair. But I will say yes.
Birthdays come once a year, but the opportunity to be re-born comes with every moment.
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again… born of water and the Spirit. John 3.3, 5
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” John 5.8