Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Pool of Bethesda

Long before our story begins, Moses stood in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai. When he came down from the mountain, he had two stone tablets with ten commandments on them. One of those commandments ordered the Israelites to “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” God would later explain more about that command. They were not to do any work on the Sabbath day. For the Israelites, that was Saturday. For us, that’s usually Sunday. We’re supposed to take one day a week where we don’t do the work we do the rest of the week, and we are supposed to rest. As the years passed, the Israelites took this command very seriously. The priests eventually became known as the Pharisees, and they made up a bunch of laws to make sure that they obeyed the commandments from so long ago. They went way overboard on the whole lawmaking thing. In the case of the Sabbath commandment, they decided that not only would they not work, but they set up markers around the towns to show how far they were allowed to walk on the Sabbath. Walking any farther than that was considered work. Carrying anything was work. People cooked their meals the day before so they wouldn’t have to work by cooking on the Sabbath. It got pretty ridiculous.

The city of Jerusalem had a wall around it, and several gates. Near what they called the Sheep Gate, there was a pool called Bethesda, which means “house of mercy.” They didn’t have hospitals at the time, and this was one place people who were sick or wounded could come to get healed. Every once in a while, an angel would stir up the water, and it would start bubbling. The first person in the pool after that happened would be healed! So lots of people came there and wait for the water to start bubbling. All kinds of blind, lame, sick people were there hoping to be healed.

There was one man there who had been paralyzed for 38 years! With no wheelchair or anything, all he could do was lay on his mat and hope he would somehow be able to get into the water when it started bubbling. But of course, when you have trouble moving by yourself, it’s pretty hard to beat others to another place, even if it’s nearby. So he waited, hoping that someday he would get his turn.

So one day, during one of the Jewish festivals, a visitor to the pool got talking to the paralyzed man. As he told his story, he could tell that the new guy looked concerned. The visitor said, “So do you want to get better?”

So he explained how frustrated he was. Every time the water moved, he would try to get over there, but someone would always beat him! Of course he wanted to get better!

So the stranger said, “OK, pick up your mat and walk!”

Well, that wasn’t what the guy was expecting to hear! He might be able to help him into the water when it got stirred up the next time, but to say “Pick up your mat and walk”? He was even more surprised when he discovered he could actually do it! He sat up, picked up his mat, and walked! Whoa, this was awesome!

One problem. It was the Sabbath. As he left the pool, some Pharisees walked by and couldn’t believe their eyes. Here was a man who was *gasp* carrying his mat on the Sabbath! That was clearly against the law that the Pharisees had made up! They couldn’t have that! This guy was in trouble now!

But the man explained that some guy had told him to pick up his mat and walk.

“Who told you to do that?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. The healer was nowhere around any more, so he couldn’t ask, or even point out who it was.

Later, this guy was at the temple, and his healer found him and introduced himself. He also warned the man to stop sinning.

So now the man knew his healer’s name. He went to the Jewish leaders and said, “Jesus healed me!”

So the Pharisees marched over to Jesus and said, “You know the law! You know you aren’t allowed to heal people on the Sabbath!”

“Whoa now,” Jesus said. “My Father, God, is always working on the Sabbath. So I do too!” That got the Pharisees really angry. Not only was Jesus working on the Sabbath, but now – oh horror! He was claiming to be the Son of God! For a man to claim to be equal with God is blasphemy! That was a crime in their culture. Punishable by death. If Jesus’ claim hadn’t been true, He would have been guilty of blasphemy. But it was true, and He never once blasphemed God.

Blasphemy: claiming to be equal with God, cursing God, saying bad things about God

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Judge, the Widow and Justice

Jesus was a master storyteller. He often had just the story to make His lessons more real for the people He was teaching. One time He needed to teach His disciples about how important it is to keep praying and not give up.

He explained, “Once, there was a judge who lived in a town and ruled his courtroom with an iron gavel. He didn’t care about God, and he definitely didn’t care about what anyone in the town thought. He mainly just cared about himself.

“In the same town lived a widow. She had lost her husband some time earlier, and now she didn’t have anyone to protect her. She and her husband had loved each other, and he had always looked out for her. But now that he was gone, what could she do? She had an enemy who was bullying her, and she was having a terrible time. Her husband would have known what to do with the bully, but she couldn’t make the bullying stop on her own.

“So she went to the judge and pleaded, ‘Please bring this bully to justice! He’s being terribly cruel!’ But the judge refused to help. So she tried again. And again. And again. The judge kept refusing her pleas, but she was starting to get on his nerves. She asked for justice again. ‘Why won’t this woman leave me alone?!’ he wondered. She pleaded for justice another time. And another.

“Finally, the judge said, ‘All right, fine! I really don’t care about this woman or anyone else, but if she doesn’t get justice, she’ll never stop pestering me! I’ll do it to get her off my back!’ So the bully got what he deserved because the woman wouldn’t stop asking for justice.”

Then Jesus said, “Listen to what this judge who didn’t care about justice said. Now just think what God will do when people keep praying day and night, all the time. God does care about justice. If an unjust judge can be convinced to be just with enough persistence, surely a just God can answer prayers when people are persistent! He can give justice quickly. But do we have enough faith?”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Buoyant Faith

It was a long day. Crowds of people were following Jesus, and they were excited to learn what He would teach them! Jesus taught some great lessons, and pretty soon it was supper time. The people were getting hungry! They were pretty far out in the countryside, and the disciples suggested, “Hey Jesus, why don’t You dismiss everyone so they can go get something to eat?”

Jesus replied, “Nah, no need. You can feed them.”

“Um, Jesus?” they said, “Do you know how much that would cost?! There’s no way we could go get enough food to feed such a huge crowd!”

So Jesus answered, “What have you brought to eat?”

When they checked, they managed to get together five small loaves of bread and two fish. Hardly enough to feed a crowd that probably had more than 10,000 people in it! There were 5000 men in the crowd, but when you add in the women and children, that’s a lot of people! They had the people sit in groups on the grass.

Jesus took the measly supply of bread and fish and looked up to the sky. He thanked God for the food and broke the loaves of bread. Then He started breaking the bread. And breaking more. And more. He kept breaking bread and passing it around, and pretty soon the whole crowd had food! They ate enough that everyone was full! Not only that, but when everyone was done eating, the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of leftover bread and fish!

When they were done gathering the leftovers, Jesus told the disciples to get in the boat and go to Bethsaida on the other side of the lake. After they left, Jesus told the crowds they could go home, and then He went to a hillside to pray. While He was praying, a storm started brewing. Later that night, Jesus looked out onto the lake, and He could see the boat, about in the middle. The waves were crazy wild, and Jesus could tell that the disciples were having a hard time with the oars, trying to stay on course and not be knocked upside-down by the wind and the water! So Jesus set out down the hill.

The disciples, meanwhile, were having a horrible time keeping the boat under control. It was almost dawn, and they still hadn’t heard from Jesus. It was all hands on deck as everyone was trying desperately to keep the boat afloat. Then they saw it. Someone was walking toward them…on the water! People don’t walk on water, so it couldn’t be a person. That left only one option. It must be a ghost! They were already terrified of the wind and the waves, and now here was a ghost coming toward them! What would it do when it got there? They panicked! Then they heard a familiar voice coming from the “ghost.” “WHOA, DUDES!” came the shout over the loud ruckus of the wind and waves. “IT’S JUST ME! DON’T FREAK OUT!” That was definitely Jesus’ voice, but how could He be walking on the water?

So Peter had an idea. “Lord, if it’s you,” he shouted, “tell me to come to You on the water!”

Jesus shouted, “Be my guest!”

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water! He was staring at Jesus, but then he started to realize what was happening. The wind was making the water go everywhere, and people can’t walk on water! Peter looked down at the water…and started to sink. He cried out, “LORD, HELP!!”

Jesus reached out and took Peter’s hand, and he said, “Oh come on, Peter, where’s your faith? Why did you doubt?”

As soon as Jesus and Peter climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Just like that. The disciples couldn’t believe it!

The sun was coming up as they reached the other side of the lake and let down anchor at Gennesaret. People in that area recognized Jesus and quickly got a crowd of people together who were sick and hurt. Wherever they went in the nearby villages, anyone who touched Jesus’ robe was healed.

© Steven Sauke
Marker on Paper

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Seeds and Soil

People all over the place had heard about the great teacher in town, and they wanted to hear Him teach! Jesus was out by the lake, and the crowd on the shore got so big that Jesus had to get in a boat and row out a bit so everyone could hear Him! He taught a lot of things using stories called parables. At one point, He said, “OK, listen up! There was a farmer who went out to plant some seeds, scattering them throughout his fields. He covered a lot of ground, and parts of his farm were better for growing seeds than other parts. Some of the seeds fell on the pathway. All that happened was that the birds thought the really nice farmer was giving them some food! They swooped down and ate the seeds and they didn’t get the chance to grow. Other seeds fell on dirt with rocks underneath. The crops grew quickly, but the soil wasn’t very deep, so as soon as the roots hit rock, the plants burned and withered in the heat of the sun because they didn’t have space for the roots to grow. Other seeds landed in a part of the field that had a lot of weeds and thorns. The weeds grew with the crops and smothered the good plants because both the weeds and the plants wanted their roots to get deeper. The weeds kept the good plants from making a crop. The rest of the seeds landed on good soil. The farmer had plowed the ground and worked hard to get it ready for his seed, and the seeds in the good soil grew. They produced a bumper crop! Pretty soon, some of those seeds grew 30 times more, some 60 times more, some even to 100 times more than they had been at first!”

Then Jesus said, “If you can hear me, hear what I’m saying!”

Later, Jesus was alone with His disciples, and He explained a bit more. He told them that He used parables sort of like a code. If you really think about what is happening in the stories, it’ll make sense. But so many people see but don’t really get what they’re seeing. They hear, but don’t understand the words. If they did, they might realize they need to be forgiven for their sins!

But the disciples still didn’t quite get all this about a farmer and seeds and a path and birds and rocks and weeds and dirt. It’s a nice story, but what was He talking about? There had to be a point to the story! So Jesus said, “Don’t you get it? No? Then how will you understand any of the parables I tell you? The farmer plants the Word of God. Some people hear it, but like the seed on the path, the devil takes the Word away from them and they don’t give it a second thought. Some people hear the good news that they can be saved from their sins, and they are excited and accept the gift! But then they have hard times and want more, and pretty soon they decide maybe this faith thing wasn’t such a good idea after all. Their faith doesn’t last long because they don’t have the roots to make it grow. Other people hear the good news, but they also hear other messages from other places that disagree. Lies from the world start coming in. Pretty soon they don’t know what to believe and their faith gets smothered in lies. Then there are the people who hear the Word of God and accept it. They let it take root in their lives, and they spread it around so it grows 30 times, 60 times, sometimes even 100 times what was planted!"