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The Transforming Touch: O.J. Simpson, Jesus Christ, And Us

John 5:1-9

Let’s begin with a little exercise in congregational participation. You respond where appropriate:
Knock knock.
Who’s there? O.J.
O.J. Who?
Good, you’re on the jury!

The joke itself summarizes the situation. O.J. Simpson is at the center of the most celebrated, the most publicized, the most analyzed criminal case in this nation’s history. Everybody now knows about O.J. Everybody is aware of the events which transpired last June 17 and the days following. Most of us saw the so-called “great chase” played out in slow motion on our television screens. Names we never knew before are suddenly heard and seen everywhere we turn. Names like Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald Goldman, Marcia Clark, and Robert Shapiro. We have been treated to an inside look at police detective work. We have learned the intricacies of DNA testing. And we have seen the American criminal justice system replace the soap operas on daytime television. Now we face the unfolding of a trial which may last six months. The questions abound. What actually happened? Did O.J. do it? Why did he run? And most of all, is this really the O.J. Simpson we have come to know and love. I mean, didn’t he have what most people dream of having? Gridiron success. Heisman trophy. All-pro. Movie star. T.V. commentator. Fabulous riches. Yes, in the commercial he jumped over the seats in the airport, but in fact, he was a man who jumped over so much more. He was a man who jumped out of the projects and into the Rose Bowl. He jumped out of poverty and into a Rolls Royce. He jumped out of obscurity into popularity. He jumped out of anonymity into being a household name instantly recognized just by his initials. But it’s this last jump which has us so confused—the jump from the country club to the county jail. We can’t imagine how it could have happened.

I spent some time recently wondering about how Jesus would regard O.J. Simpson. If Jesus were to walk into that jail cell in Los Angeles today, what could He say to O.J.? Well, we don’t have to speculate about the answer because even though the story of O.J. Simpson is very current, it is not very new. He is not the first person to land in a prison trapped by seemingly impossible circumstances. In fact, the Bible is an unending stream of stories of people who find themselves in impossible circumstances, usually as a consequence of their own mistakes. One such story is found in John 5, the story of the man who had been ill for 38 years. Now you may be wondering how in the world there can be a parallel between O.J. and this paralyzed man. O.J. is known all over the world; this man doesn’t even have a name, so far as we know. O.J. has prosperity; this man had poverty. O.J. has health; this man had sickness. What do they have in common? Well, they both ended up in the same place. They are both in prison—one is locked in an actual jail cell, the other is locked in a prison without bars—but both are locked up and locked away. Therefore, what happened between this man and Jesus is instructive for O.J. and for us as well. I’ll show you what I mean…

This nameless man in John 5 followed the wrong crowd to the wrong place looking for the wrong thing.

It happened at what was known as the pool of Bethesda. The place must have looked like a battlefield after the fighting has stopped. Everywhere you looked there were lying the diseased and afflicted, with pale and sorrowful faces, with lips drawn in pain, with eyes dulled by sleeplessness and despair. Every conceivable kind of pain and sickness and tragedy was represented there. It was a congregation of the stricken, a rendezvous of life’s physical wrecks, a backwater of the human experience where desperate people waited and waited, hoping against hope. They were there because on rare occasions the springs feeding the pool of Bethesda would bubble and boil, and there was the deeply-held superstition that the first one into the water when it bubbled would be healed.

In the crowd at the pool of Bethesda was this unnamed man who had been imprisoned in illness for 38 years. For 38 years he had known restriction, not freedom. For 38 years his eyes had not seen lovely blooming fields in spring, nor had the song of the birds in the open air graced his ears. For 38 years, he had been without the satisfaction of being a useful member of society. For 38 years he had been denied the attention and comfort of any faithful human companion—the scripture specifically notes that he was very much alone. For 38 years, he had lived in a prison without bars, but a prison every bit as real as the one holding O.J. Simpson now. For 38 years, he had joined the multitude at the pool of Bethesda seeking the superstitious healing of the bubbling waters. It was all a fantasy. There is no record anywhere—in the Bible or anywhere else—that anyone ever was healed by those bubbling waters, but desperate people will do anything, go any place, follow any crowd to find what they think they need. And so this man at the pool of Bethesda followed the wrong crowd to the wrong place looking for the wrong thing.

I think that’s what has happened to O.J. Simpson. As the stories continue to unfold, we are learning more and more about him. We are learning, for example, that he desperately sought people’s approval. It wasn’t enough just to be popular; he had to be a pleaser. The Buffalo Bills’ football organization tells us that he never said “No” to anyone or anything. Never. If you asked him to speak at your little league banquet tomorrow night, he would say “Yes”—and then he would call the Buffalo Bills’ office and say: “Get me out of that one.” Somehow, he felt that his worth as a human being depended upon other people’s approval. And we are learning that he was addicted to fame.

He had to be in the spotlight. He had to stand at center stage. He resented anything that meant having to share the glory. He once confided to his friend, Lou Fox, that, as he put it: “I am afraid of the day when I go into a restaurant and am not recognized, and have to wait for a table.” He pursued the bubbling waters of fame like this man in the story pursued the bubbling waters of the pool of Bethesda. And, of course, we are learning that O.J. apparently was addicted to women, not as persons, but as objects. His first wife is quoted as saying: “I have been walked past and left behind by more women than I could count.” One of those women was an attractive 18-year-old named Nicole Brown. O.J. met her when she was a waitress at a restaurant in Dana Point, California in 1977. They began to date, though Simpson was still married. Then they moved in together and she bore him two children. Finally they married in 1985. To see the photographs of the dazzling blonde on the arm of the great athlete and to see how they lived in such splendor is to think that they had it made. But now we are learning the other side. We’re hearing about the 911 calls and the alleged abuse and all kinds of terrible things. We’re seeing that what we thought was there was not there at all. We don’t know who killed Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. But I believe it is safe to say that we have learned from O.J. Simpson that life in the light is not what it seems.

I like the way Lily Tomlin, the actress put it. She said: “If I had realized what it was like to have it all, I would have settled for less!” Isn’t that a profound statement? “If I had realized what it was like to have it all, I would have settled for less.” Maybe that is something for us all to think about deeply today. Maybe the directions in which we are heading, the intensity and the energy we are expending, the fantasies we have dangling out in front of us for the future are not worth it at all.

“You’ve followed the wrong crowd to the wrong place looking for the wrong thing.” I think that’s what Jesus says to the man at the pool at Bethesda, to O.J. Simpson, and to us.

But notice that this nameless man found the right person asking the right question with the right result.

Standing over the poor wreck of a life, imprisoned by his circumstances there at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus asked him: “Do you want to be healed?” What a strange question. Surely there was no need for Jesus to ask that. It says right here in the Book that Jesus “knew that this man had been sick for a long time.” The man’s been there by the waters of the pool for 38 years, for heaven’s sake! Surely Jesus was joking. No, he wasn’t joking at all. He was simply asking this man if he recognized that the first step in gaining something is to genuinely desire it. You see, Jesus knew that some people become comfortable and complacent with their condition in life.

And it’s quite true. I’ve known people who say that they want situations in their lives to be changed, but they don’t want it enough to do anything about it. I’ve talked to people stuck in dead-end jobs or even without jobs, and yet when I suggest that they look for a job in another field of endeavor or in another part of the country, they don’t want out of their unhappiness enough to retrain or to move. I’ve talked to men who have trouble being faithful to their wives, but they don’t want to change things badly enough to quit stopping by the local bars’ “Happy Hour” on their way home from work. I’ve talked to young people who wanted to build some Christian principles into their lives, but they didn’t want it badly enough to give up their non-Christian friends who keep setting before them the lure of alcohol and drugs and physical pleasure.

The point Jesus was making here is that He can only help those who are willing to help themselves. He can only transform your life if you really want your life transformed. Jesus asked the man: “Do you want to be healed?” And in essence the man said: “Lord, I’ve been trying for 38 years with no success. Yes, I want to be healed. I want to be changed.” So Jesus then said to him: “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” Immediately there flowed into that pale, wasted body the rich red glow of health. Immediately this one who had been locked away in a prison found the freedom of release. Immediately he was transformed by the touch of the master upon his life.

There was a philosopher named Braeswood who was in a concentration camp in World War II. He tells of the day he finally saw the definition of Christianity. He said that the commandant of the camp was at random selecting persons to be sent to the gas chambers. He needed one more person to meet the days’ grisly quota. His eye fell upon a young mother holding her baby in her arms. He decided to take the baby and use that little one to meet the quota. The woman resisted fiercely. She would not let go of her child. In frustration, the commandant then seized them both and dragged them off toward the ovens. The woman struggled against him for all she was worth. All the other prisoners were watching in stunned horror. Then suddenly a woman prisoner stepped forward. Braeswood later learned that she was a Christian and her name was Maria. The woman said to the commandant: “Take me, and let them live.” She was then marched off to her death. Braeswood said: “There I saw the definition of Christianity—the idea that someone who is not condemned would take the place of someone who is condemned and die, so that the one condemned could live. That’s what Christ offers.”

But wait. Let’s yank this whole thing down out of the realm of the theoretical. Let’s get personal. Do you believe that Jesus Christ can have that kind of freeing, healing, redeeming, liberating effect in your life? Do you believe that he can heal the diseases which sometimes afflict you? Do you believe that He can work His miracles through doctors and nurses and sometimes beyond them? Do you believe that He can heal the hurt caused by the callousness of one you love? Do you believe that He can restore a once-beautiful relationship which has been frayed by jealousy and selfishness? Can He repair the rift in your marriage? Can He bridge the gap between you and your children or you and your parents? Can He overcome the loneliness which you feel because you’ve never married or you are widowed or divorced? Can He re-orient the priorities in your life so that you don’t go chasing after every meaningless little fantasy that comes along? Can He heal up the sores of hatred and prejudice that infect your heart? Can He put back together a life torn apart by sin? Can He bind up the wounds of old-age which have festered with despair?

Jesus promises that He can do all of that—and more. All He asks is: “Do you want to be healed? Do you want what I can offer you in life? Do you want my transforming power for yourself?” You see, He is the right person asking the right question. And when we answer “Yes”, the results are always wonderful. Who knows, but I rather suspect that if O.J. Simpson had said “Yes” to the Lord earlier in his life, the rest of his life might have been different. One thing I know for sure is that if O.J. Simpson were to say “Yes” to the Lord right now, the rest of his life will be different. So will yours. And so will mine.

Jesus says to us today: “Do you want my transforming power in your life?” Say “Yes” to Jesus right now. You will never, ever regret it…

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