Jesus And Our Suffering
I read to you from the 5th chapter of John’s Gospel, beginning that reading at the first verse:
“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 Hebrew called Bethsaida, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for 38 years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying 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 troubled. And while I am going, another steps down before me.’
“Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.’ And at once, the man was healed. And he took up his pallet and he walked.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory. Let us pray.
Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Someone has said, “Short memories make for shallow souls.” I believe that to be true. And so I want to spend the time with you today deepening my own soul. For what I share with you now, I share essentially by way of remembrance. As I look back across the years of my ministry, it seems to me that there is one subject which people have asked me to speak on most often, and that subject is the subject of loneliness. As a matter of fact, I have dealt with the theme before, last year, in the sermon entitled How to Conquer Loneliness. That sermon generated more mail, both from the members of this congregation and from the television viewers than any other single sermon. Well, I don’t want to forget those people and the sense of aloneness that they feel. And I also don’t want to forget the loneliness which has sometimes been a part of my own experience. And so today I want to remember, and in remembering, hopefully, to try to deepen my own soul.
I want to begin by introducing you to a very lonely man.
We know little or nothing about him. We do not know his name. We do not know his age. We do not know his background. We know only brief sketches of his circumstances. We do know that he had an illness which apparently was a chronic illness for the Bible says very specifically that he had been ill for 38 years. I’ve read that story many times in my life. And I always felt in reading the story that the man’s biggest problem was his physical infirmity. And yet, not very long ago, I read the story once again and suddenly saw something I hadn’t seen before. The words simply leaped off the page and gripped my heart. At one point, the man said, “Sir, I have no one to help me.” Suddenly, I realized that as bad as the 38-year illness may be, what was worse was the awful loneliness this man experienced.
Well, I suppose at the beginning when his illness first struck him, that there were many people who came to him to visit, to extend words of comfort, to minister to his needs. But then gradually, as the days became weeks, and the weeks became months, and the months became years, those who had come so faithfully at first began to drift away. You know how it is. When you are first taken ill, there are always those acts of kindness that surrounds you, the phone calls, the cards, the visits, the flowers, all of those things. But if your illness lingers for a time, well, then the cards and the calls and the visits become fewer and farther between. I think that’s exactly what happened to this man in the story. At first, there were many, but then with the passing of time, well, there came a point when there was no one. That’s what the Bible says very specifically. “There was no one to help me.” No one. He was alone. And he was lonely. And he lingered in that loneliness for more than 30 years.
There are a lot of people today who are alone. Some people are alone because of illness and infirmity. Some people are alone because of their own pride which gives them an air of superiority, an air of arrogance that causes them to look down as it were upon others, and it makes it impossible for them to have a meaningful relationship with other people. And then there are some people who are alone because of their own fears and their own insecurities which cause them to withdraw into themselves and to close out or isolate themselves from other people. And some people are alone simply because, well, our society is creating more and more loneliness. The emphasis upon careers is creating greater and greater numbers of single people. More and more marriages are disintegrating in divorce, and divorce inevitably results in lonely partners and lonely children. There’s more mobility in our society, so the families now are spread from one end of the country to the other. I know the advertisement is true. A phone call is the next best thing to being there. But my friends, that’s a very poor second because no phone call I have ever received felt as good as a hug.
And then with increased life spans, marriages which are broken by the death of one of the partners result in the surviving partner many times having a long period of loneliness. I think here of my own grandmother. My grandfather died in 1959. And for all these 25 years since, my grandmother has walked the lonely, lonely road of widowhood. There are many people alone and lonely today. And their hearts are breaking because of it. Notice I said, “Their hearts are breaking.” Now, I know you think that I use that as a figure of speech. No, I didn’t use it as a figure of speech. I’m speaking there quite literally.
Dr. James Lynch recently published a book called The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness. And the whole thesis of that book is that loneliness has a profoundly negative impact upon us physically. And the evidence Dr. Lynch cites is irrefutable. Are you aware of the fact, for example, that people who are single or widowed or divorced die prematurely from heart disease five times more often than those who are engaged in significant human relationships? Are you aware of the fact that every form of terminal cancer is more common among people who are lonely than among people who are not? Are you aware of the fact that those who lose themselves in their work simply because, for whatever reason, they cannot lose themselves in a loving human relationship run an infinitely greater risk of serious debilitating illness?
There it all is laid out for us to see. There are many people today who are alone and lonely, and they’re trying to conceal that loneliness. And the loneliness is literally killing them. So here was a man who had been alone and lonely for 38 years. You know some people and I know some people who could say, “I know what he felt like.” As a matter of fact, it just may be that you are whispering to yourself right at this moment, “I know what he felt like because I have felt that way too.”
And having shown you this very lonely man, I want to show you something else. I want to show you that nothing happened to his loneliness until he met Jesus.
But Jesus did two things to that man, two things that released him from the grip of that loneliness. Pay close attention here because I think we’re drawing very close to the clue as to what to do about the loneliness that sometimes lingers in your life and in mine. The first thing that Jesus did was to reach out to the man. That’s the first thing. And that’s worth noting.
You see, Jesus never became so preoccupied with His own problems, never became so wrapped up, so absorbed in His own pain, that He couldn’t see the needs around Him. I ask you to look at Him near the end of His life. There you have all the proof that you need. As Jesus made His way toward the Cross, He wept over the City of Jerusalem, but He didn’t weep a single tear for Himself. He took care of the mothers of Jerusalem, and He took care of His own mother, but He did nothing whatever to take care of Himself. In the last hours of His life, He warned Pilate, and He cared for John, and He gave grace to a thief, and He looked to His Heavenly Father, and He took the weight of a whole world’s sin upon His shoulders. But He did nothing whatever for Himself. Jesus never became preoccupied with His own pain. Instead, He was totally involved in His concern for others.
There’s a man named Henri Nouwen who has written a remarkable little book called The Wounded Healer. And in that book, he tells a story of a man who was looking for the Messiah. The man was told that the Messiah could be found at the city gates sitting there with all of the wounded. And the man asked how he would know the Messiah from amongst all the other wounded there. And he was told the Messiah is different. “How is He different?” the man asked. And the answer came. The Messiah is different because all of the other wounded there at the city gate when they are cleaning and dressing their wounds they always unwrap all of their wounds at once. And only when they’ve unwrapped all of their wounds do they then begin the process of rewrapping all of those wounds. But the Messiah is different. The Messiah unwraps only one wound at a time. And then He rewraps that one wound before He goes on to unwrap a second wound. And that’s so that Jesus will never be delayed in responding to the needs of someone who might call for His help. Jesus, you see, is the Wounded Healer. Never so preoccupied with His own pain that He could be delayed even for a moment from responding to the needs of another.
You see that so clearly in this story. I don’t know if you caught it in the reading or not. But it says in the Bible that Jesus went up to Jerusalem to the feast alone. For some reason, the disciples did not accompany Him. He was there in the city all by Himself. And in the midst of His own sense of aloneness, what did He do? He reached out and touched the life of a man who had been alone and lonely for 38 years. That’s important for us to grasp. Out of our own sense of loneliness, like Jesus, we should be reaching out to touch the lives of those who are lonely about us. That’s the first thing that Jesus did. But the second thing that Jesus did to this man was to ask him a question. Jesus said, “Do you want to be healed?” Now at first blush, that seems a rather astonishing question. I mean, after all, it says right there on the pages of Scripture. It says that Jesus knew that the man had been sick and alone for 38 years. Why then would Jesus ask him, “Do you want to be healed?” Must have been some kind of joke. No, it wasn’t a joke at all. Jesus meant the question quite seriously.
When He said, “Do you want to be healed?” He was in essence asking this man, “Are you aware of the fact that the first step toward gaining something in life is to genuinely desire it?” I’ve known people in my experience who wanted to make certain changes in their lives, but they didn’t want to make those changes badly enough to really do something about them. I’ve talked to widows who shared with me the agony of their loneliness. And yet when I then begin to talk to them about volunteer service in which they can become involved, entangle their heartstrings with the lives of other people, well, they don’t want out of their loneliness badly enough to do that. I talk to young men at the age of adolescence. More than anything else that they want on this earth is to have a date with a girl, but they can’t quite bring themselves to have the nerve to run the risk of rejection, to pick up the phone, and call a girl. They want out of loneliness, yes. But not badly enough to try to do something about it. I talk to teachers who say they yearn to have a closer relationship with their students, but they don’t yearn for it badly enough to invite their students to come to their homes and share a time of fellowship together.
You see, the point Jesus was trying to make is simply this. That Jesus can only help those who are willing to try to help themselves. That’s the second thing we need to remember. Jesus can only help those who are willing to try to help themselves. Let me underscore the point by setting before you two-word portraits of two men who lived in this century. The first man’s name was Sinclair Lewis, the author. You may recognize him to occupy a reasonably prominent place in the pantheon of American literature. He was a skilled author. But he wasn’t much of a man. He was brutal in his conduct and in his language. He lived only for himself; no one else. He gave himself to endless orgies and to unrestrained lust. He lost his friends because of his severe unloving ways. He regarded faith in Jesus Christ as being nothing more than just a pathetic joke. He wallowed around for years and years in the mire of his own self-pity. He spent the last 30 years of his life as a mumbling, fumbling, stumbling drunk. And he died at age 66 in a second-class clinic on the outskirts of the City of Rome all alone. On his death certificate, under cause of death were written two words: “Paralysis Cardiaca.” A paralyzed heart.
The second man was a man named Lord Mathers. He lived in England. He was born to poverty-stricken parents. At an early age, they simply abandoned him at the entrance to a coal mine. He was then placed in an institution where the only good thing that happened to him was that he was introduced to faith in Jesus Christ. He took that faith as his very own. And on the strength of that faith, beginning to build and to grow within him, he literally educated himself. And with that faith and with that self-taught education, he then committed himself to spending the rest of his life meeting the needs of the people of his land. And that’s precisely what he did. He came to the point in his life where he felt that he could better accomplish that goal by serving as a member of parliament. So he stood for election; he was defeated. He stood a second time; he was defeated. He stood a third time; this time, he was elected. But there in parliament, all too frequently, he was on the losing end of the vote. And yet he never quit. He never gave up. He never quit trying to find new and more effective ways to meet the needs of the people of his land. So then near the end of his life, in deep admiration for the sheer quality of his living, his peers in parliament elected him to the House of Lords. It was upon the occasion of his investiture into the House of Lords that he delivered himself of a poem, which he said was the essence of his life. That’s not true. Now, the essence of his life was compassionate self-offering. The essence of his life was never thinking of himself but always giving himself to the needs of others in the name of Jesus Christ. That was the essence of his life. But the poem is worth hearing. Not because the poetry is good, it isn’t. But because the man was awfully good. Listen.
“Did you tackle the trouble that came your way with a resolute heart and cheerful? / Or did you hide your face from the light of day with a craven soul and fearful? / Now, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce. / Trouble’s just what you make it. / It isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts, but only how did you take it? / So you’re knocked to the earth? Well, well, what’s that? / Rise up with a smiling face. / It’s nothing against you that you’re knocked down flat. / But to lie there, that’s the disgrace…”
“ …Death comes with a crawl or it comes with a pounce. / But whether it’s slow or spry, it isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts. / But only how did you die?”
Dear God, what a man! And he died covered with honors and surrounded by friends. Two men. One of them, Sinclair Lewis, gave himself to hating. The other, Lord Mathers, gave himself to helping. One of them, Sinclair Lewis, spent others for himself. The other, Lord Mathers, spent himself on others. One of them, Sinclair Lewis, died utterly alone. The other, Lord Mathers, died surrounded by friends. Two men. And I submit to you that the difference between those two men can be summed up in two simple words. Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who made such a difference in the life of a man who was alone and lonely for 38 years.
Now, God knows I don’t want to be flippant about all this. I don’t want to sound casual or corny because I know just how lonely some of you are. Some of you have cried about it in my presence. I know how some of you are longing for some companionship more than anything else you can think of in life. I know how some of you go to the mailbox every day and find it empty again and again. I know how some of you wait for the phone to ring hoping on hope that it will ring. And it rings so infrequently. I know how some of you are longing to hear from your children. But your children are grown. They’re married. They have families of their own. They live off in a distant city somewhere. And they have a life of their own. And because they’re busy with their life of their own, well, it’s very difficult for them nowadays to make regular contact. I know how some of you go home at night and walk through the front door and listen for the sound of footfalls that once were there but are there no more because the one you love more than anything else in all the earth has crossed over into eternity. And I know how some of you will hear these words on beds of pain, isolated from the world around you. I know how lonely some of you are.
And yet I’m speaking to you out of more than 30 years as a professing Christian. And out of more than 15 years as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And what I’m saying to you is simply this: that Jesus Christ can deal with the loneliness in your life, but you’ve got to want Him to do it. Make no mistake. Jesus knows about loneliness. He had no close relationship with His family once His ministry began. He had no wife, no children. He was always on the move. Oh, yes, many times, He was surrounded by crowds, but He was terribly lonely in the midst of them. You know how it is when you climb a mountain top? The close you get to the top, the quieter, the more separated you become from everything that is below. Jesus lived at the mountain top of the human experience, and it was terribly lonely there. There was an elevation to His character, an altitude to His attitude that somehow set Him apart lonely though He was.
Oh, you say He had the disciples, yes. But that was always an unequal relationship. He was the teacher; they were the taught. And besides that, at the times when He needed them the most, they weren’t there. Near the end of His life, what did they do when He needed them the most, they fell asleep. Or they ran off to save their own hides and left Him there at the mercy, or rather at the mercilessness, of His captors. He stood on trial for His life, and not a single person stepped forward to speak in His defense. The soldiers took Him and they beat Him and they ridiculed Him and they played games with Him. You talk about lonely. He walked down the street carrying the immense cross on His back, and the crowds jeered and they spat on Him. Lonely. And then He was lonely when at last they strung Him up to die. Jesus knows about loneliness. And that’s why He can help us to overcome the loneliness in our lives. But we’ve got to want Him to do it.
Do you want to be healed? That means making a commitment. It takes commitment. It takes saying, “Jesus, there’s not much of me, but all that there is of me, I give it to You.” And if you make that kind of commitment, if you can make that kind of commitment now, but if you make that kind of commitment, it means that you’ll involve yourself in a whole lifetime of service to others. It means that you’ll be giving yourself anew and afresh both to Christ and to others every single day that you live. It means that the first thing you do when you get up in the morning will be to set foot on the floor and to say, “Lord, I am determined to live for You this day. Use me as You will.” It takes that kind of commitment.
But I want to tell you something. If you are willing to make that kind of commitment in your life, then I promise you, any loneliness which lingers in your life will linger there no more. No more. No more. Let us pray.
Gracious God, the gift of Jesus Christ is the most priceless gift we can ever know. We commit ourselves to Him now. In Him, let us find peace and joy and happiness and fellowship. And let us understand that as we walk through the days of our lives, Jesus, the best friend we could ever have, Jesus will walk step for step with us. In His name. Amen.