A Sermon by Rev Grant H. Odhner
Preached in Rochester, Michigan
May 26, 1991

“Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

The Lord asks this question of us just as He did of some persons 2000 years ago. And unless we can answer “yes,” we cannot hope to know the deeper, richer life that the Lord promises. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). We cannot accept a greater sense of the Lord’s life unless we recognize the attitudes and priorities with ourselves that stand in the way. These are our sickness.

Our own sickness must be a reality for us, both if we are to be made well and if we are to understand this story. The Word’s stories hold secrets truths that remain secret to those who look with worldly eyes or with faithless eyes, or who look with self-sufficiency. If we are not in need we cannot see. When real truth is irrelevant to us, seeing it becomes a mere intellectual exercise.

All the stories of the Lord’s healings are parables about the healing of the mind. Spiritual sickness and health, damnation and salvation are all a matter of mind. It is our mind that senses life as good or bad. It is our mind that feels trust or distrust, mercy or contempt, patience or annoyance. It is our mind that is more or less limited. It is our mind that experiences the Lord and His salvation. The Word’s parables are about the mind and its changes. With this in mind, let us look at the parable before us.

It begins: “After this there was a feast of the Jews and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”

There were three feasts which the Law required the Jews to celebrate at the temple in Jerusalem. These feasts remembered the Lord’s deliverance from Egypt (Passover), His “planting” them in the land of Canaan and beginning to make them fruitful (Weeks = First Fruits), and His bringing them to full blessing there (Tabernacles = Ingathering). Viewed spiritually, these feasts were held to recognize the Lord’s role in liberating our minds, in planting seeds of truth in them, and finally His role in blessing our minds with the full fruits of His life (see AC 9296).

Jesus went up to Jerusalem to these feasts because He is the one who liberates, grows, and blesses our minds. This is the general subject here. That’s why the setting is one of these feasts.

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porches.” The Sheep Gate was just north of the temple, on the northeast wall of the city. Perhaps it was through this gate that sheep were brought in on their way to the temple for sacrifices, or perhaps they were bought and sold there for use in sacrifices. A gate is an entryway, marking an approach. In a symbolic sense, the Sheep Gate pictures the opening of the mind toward spiritual life, and a desire to follow the Shepherd in this path.

But the main focus here is not the gate but the pool near it, called “Bethesda.” It was trapezoid-shaped, divided into two pools by a walkway across the middle. Stairs in each corner led down into the pool. It was said to have “five porches.” This refers to colonnades, one on each side and a fifth one over the walkway. What is this “pool” at the entryway to our spiritual life? It is symbolic of the reservoir of ideas in our memories, ideas of what is true that we have gathered from our experience, and especially from the Word.

In themselves, as they exist in our memories, these ideas have little life. They are only by the entryway to the real us. It is a surface part of us that gathers knowledge. The “five porches” mentioned call to mind the fingers of the hand, and the five senses. Our first perspective on the things that we learn is a sensory one; we are at first tied to the way things feel and appear. It is a higher part of us that lifts knowledge out of the memory where it is first lodged, and turns it over and sees it more deeply. Still, the pool of truths in our memory is called “Bethesda,” “House of Mercy,” because of the potential that it holds for opening our minds and leading us to the Lord. The Lord mercifully gives us ideas that can lead us, and He is constantly present, “brooding over the face of the waters,” waiting for the right time to send His angels to stir those ideas to life.

Now in the five porches around the pool there “lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, withered.” What does this say about our entryway to spiritual life? Our outer mind is clogged with impediments to communion with the Lord. We are “sick” with selfishness and its petty concerns; we are “blinded” with ignorance, prejudice, and our world-centered outlook; we are “lame” in our inability to progress; we are “withered” in our powerlessness and lack of energy for achieving something beyond ourselves.

All these sick ones in our story were “waiting for the moving of the water.” “For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had” (vv. 3,4).

This describes how the impediments to our spiritual life and progress are healed. When we are willing and ready to commit our lives to them, the true ideas in our memory are stirred by the Lord’s messengers, by His spirit; they come alive for us: they become insight and inspiration where before they were just knowledge. We recognize their truth. Our sickness is then seen from a new perspective; we gain a separation from it; we move beyond it (see AC 10083).

This healing does not happen completely all at once: it happens gradually, one sickness at a time (so to speak). Some of our sicknesses take a long time to heal. We may think we are ready and “waiting” for them to change, but the Lord knows our real readiness to see and accept and change.

We tend to spend a long time wanting change from one part of us but not another; we want change from our understanding and not yet from our will. In other words, we see intellectually that we are sick in some respect and that change is desirable, yet we are not ready emotionally to change. Part of us may grieve over the consequences of a bad habit (for example); we may see its tragic effects on our life, its perversity! At the same time, we cannot find the resolve to really accept a change in attitude and life-style. The fact is, consciously or unconsciously, we still feel attachment to the delights that are the source of our disfunction. For every spiritual sickness has its source in some delight that sustains it.

Only the one who stepped into the pool first was healed. The quickest and readiest person found relief. “Quickness” in spiritual terms is a product of our will. We feel quick and alive when our heart is involved. When we are acting mostly from our understanding, we are slow. There is more effort, less resolve; more self-compulsion is required. As a result, our responsiveness is somewhat dull and forced.

How painful and frustrating it is to see that we are sick and incapacitated, and yet not to find the quickness and resolve of will to change! Did we hurt someone for the thousandth time? Were we impatient again? Did we give in to some bitterness after all our intellectual resolves? Did we “fall” to the same old lust?

We see here the plight of the man who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. He was unable to get himself into the water quickly enough; as he said, “I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Thirty-eight years is a long time. We can imagine the pitch of despair. Viewed symbolically, periods of time mark states of mind. An interval of time seems long or short to us, depending on our mental attitude. And just as slowness and quickness are a matter of how much our will is involved, so here, the longness of this time reinforces the fact that the will is resisting the healing even though the understanding wants it.

But there is more in this number. Like all numbers in the Word, “thirty-eight” has a symbolic meaning. This was the number of years it took for all the Israelites who had doubted the Lord’s power to die in the wilderness; this was necessary before the others could begin to enter the promised land (Deut. 2:14). Thirty-eight (literally “thirty and eight”) refers to a mental phase coming to fullness so that a new one can begin. “Thirty” means fullness of preparation and readiness. Joseph was thirty when he began to rule Egypt (see Gen. 41:46); David was thirty when he became king (see II Sam 5:4); Jesus was thirty when He began His ministry (see Luke 3:23). “Eight” means a new beginning. The eighth day is the first day after a complete week, the beginning of a new week. It was the day when a boy was circumcised and entered the covenant. It is often mentioned in the Law as a special day in purification ceremonies and festivals.

Thirty-eight is mentioned in our story because spiritual change does not happen without preparation and readiness. For a given change in mental outlook to become permanent, certain crucial experiences are necessary, certain knowledges must be acquired, certain realizations must come realizations born of aging, of encountering difficulties and frustrations, of failing, of experiencing various kinds of success and satisfaction. We must learn the value of things through experiencing highs and lows, presence and absence, good and evil. When we have acquired a sufficient store of these things and are ready to begin a new phase, we have achieved “thirty and eight.”

The Lord is constantly preparing us to be healed, constantly trying to make life better for us. But it is not until we are ready for Him that we see Him standing above us in our infirm condition, and hear His invitation: “Do you want to be made well?”

We may not be aware at first that the invitation is coming from the Lord. The man in our story wasn’t. Still, our response must be one of self-awareness. In other words, we must know our own powerlessness to save ourselves. (“I have no man . . . ” ” . . . while I am coming, another steps down before me.”) It is this realization of our powerlessness, especially, that is meant by “thirty.” Joseph and David both were given power at age thirty. Both represented the Lord, who proclaimed Himself the Messiah, the king, at the same age. “Thirty” means recognizing our own lack of power and giving all power to the Lord, letting Him rule. This recognition is what enables us to hear the Lord’s voice saying to us, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”

“Rise, take up your bed and walk.” People who lie in a bed are either asleep, weak, or sick. Those who rise and walk are awake and well. The Lord causes us to become spiritually awake, energetic, well, when we are ready. His “speaking” these words stands for the inflow of His love and truth, which stir us to new possibilities, new resolves, new power.

But more specifically, the Lord’s words symbolically describe the healing. “Rise” signals a raising of the mind to what lies above the self. We must look to the Lord, to a higher power, to goals in life that are larger than we are. And when the mind’s focus is raised, then the “bed” in which it has been resting is also raised. Our mental bed is the set of ideas that underlie our basic thinking and willing. These ideas are “taken up” when we rethink them or see them in a new way, out of a desire to respond to the Lord’s will. Finally the Lord said, “Walk.” To “walk” is to progress. Literally it is to actually change our location and direction. Spiritually it is to change our state of mind, our way of responding to life’s events, to the people around us, to insults, to frustrations, to our old negative mental dialogue.

And in what direction does the freed mind “walk”? Jesus later found the man who had accepted His healing in the temple. The temple, the Lord’s house, pictures His fuller presence, which is heaven. This is the goal of all healing: to dwell more closely in the Lord’s life and to have that life more fully in us. It was in the temple that the healed man found out who his Savior was. So with us, it is when we come into a greater sense of the Lord’s life that we can really know that He healed us. We feel gratitude and humility before Him. We have a clear sense of His mercy. We know that He has done it.

This realization is what is meant by the “Sabbath.” All the miracles of healing in our life are done on the Sabbath. They are done with the acknowledgment that the Lord alone works, the Lord alone creates and creates anew. It does appear that we are laboring from ourselves just as it appeared to the Jews that the healed man was laboring by carrying his bed. Indeed, we must labor as if all depended on us. Yet we can truly say, as the man in the story did, “He who made me well said to me, Take up your bed and walk.'” We labor by the Lord’s authority, recognizing that He is doing the work within us.

A final thought on our text, the Lord’s question: “Do you want to be made well?” What greater testimony to the Lord’s love is there than this: that He allows us the freedom to make His salvation our own? He accomplishes it, but not without our full involvement! The Lord does not tell us that we must be made well. In His infinite wisdom and mercy He asks, “Do you want to be made well?” He asks so that the choice may be ours. It is left to us to respond to His invitation: “Rise; take up your bed and walk.” Amen.

Lessons: Isaiah 55; John 5:1-15; AC 2694:1-3

Arcana Caelestia

2694:1-3. “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the child where he is.” This signifies the hope of help . . . . In the verses which precede, the state of desolation . . . is treated of.

Those who are being reformed are reduced into ignorance of truth, or desolation, even to grief and despair, and then for the first time they have comfort and help from the Lord. This is unknown at this day, for the reason that few are reformed. Those who are such that they can be reformed are brought into this state, if not in the life of the body, nevertheless in the other life, where this state is well known, and is called vastation or desolation . . . .

Those who are in such vastation or desolation are reduced even to despair. And when they are in this state they then receive comfort and help from the Lord, and are at length taken away into heaven. There they are instructed anew, as it were, among the angels in the goods and truths of faith. The reason for this vastation and desolation is chiefly that the persuasive [light] which they have conceived from their self (proprium) may be broken (see n. 2682); and also that they may receive a perception of good and truth. They cannot receive this perception until the persuasive [light] which is from their self has been softened, as it were. This softening is brought about by the state of anxiety and grief even to despair.

What is good, nay, what is blessed and happy, no one can perceive with an exquisite sense unless he has been in a state of what is not good, not blessed, and not happy. From this he acquires a sphere of perception, and this in the degree in which he has been in the opposite state. The sphere of perception and the extension of its limits arise from the realizing of contrasts. These are causes of vastation or desolation, besides many others.

But take examples for illustration. If it is proved to those who ascribe all things to their own prudence and little or nothing to Divine Providence, by thousands of reasons that the Divine Providence is universal, and this because it is in the most minute particulars, and that not even a hair falls from the head (that is, nothing happens however small) which is not foreseen and provided accordingly, nevertheless their state of thought about their own prudence is not changed by it, except at the very moment when they find themselves convinced by the reasons. Nay, if the same thing were attested to them by living experiences, just at the moment when they see the experiences, or are in them, they may confess that it is so. But after the lapse of a few moments they return to their former state of opinion. Such things have some momentary effect upon the thought but not upon the affection. And unless the affection is broken, the thought remains in its own state. For the thought has its belief and its life from the affection. But when anxiety and grief are induced upon them by the fact of their own helplessness, and this even to despair, the opinion they are persuaded of is broken, and their state is changed. And then they can be led into the belief that they can do nothing of themselves, but that all power, prudence, intelligence, and wisdom are from the Lord.