A stronghold

Published on 13 Mar 2018
God is for us refuge and a stronghold, an ever-present help in distress. Psalm 46

God is for us refuge and a stronghold, an ever-present help in distress.

Psalm 46

Tuesday – Week 4

Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12
And he brought me back to the gate of the Temple; and look! Water coming from beneath the threshold of the Temple, eastwards, since the Temple façade faced East. And the water came down from below the Temple’s southern part, from the South side of the altar.
Then he led me out of the Northern gate, and made me turn round by way of the outside, to the outer gate which faces East. And look! The water was trickling from the South threshold.
And when the man went out Eastwards, with a measuring line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and made me go across through the water; the water was up to my ankles.
And he measured a thousand cubits, and made me go across through the water; the water was up to my knees.
And he measured a thousand cubits and made me go across through the water; the water was up to my hips.
And he measured a thousand cubits; a flood that I could not cross, because the water had swollen: waters to swim through – it could not be crossed.
And he said to me, ‘Have you seen, Son of Man?’ And he made me walk, and brought me back to the edge of the flood.
And when he brought me back, look! On the edge of the flood were very many trees, on both sides.
And he said to me, ‘These waters go out to the Eastern territory and go down to the Arabah, and go into the Sea, the Salt waters, and make it fresh. And it shall be that every living creature that swarms shall be able to live, everywhere the stream goes. And the fish shall be very numerous, for these waters go there, and they shall be made fresh once the waters go there.
‘And on the shore of the stream there shall grow up on both sides every kind of edible tree; their leaves shall not wither, and their fruit shall not fail. Each month they shall yield fruit; for their waters come out of the Temple, and their fruit shall serve as food, and their leaves for medicine.’
Psalm 46: 2-3, 5-6, 8-9
God is for us a refuge and a stronghold, an ever-present help in distress.
Therefore we are not afraid when the earth is changed,
When the mountains quake into the heart of the seas.
A stream whose channels give joy to the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High.
God is in its midst – it shall not be shaken; God will help it at the break of day.
YHWH Sabaoth is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come and see YHWH’s deeds – he has done fearsome things on the earth.
John 5: 1-16
After this, there was a feast of the Judaeans, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. There is in Jerusalem, at the Sheep Gate, a pool, which is called ‘Beth Zatha’ in Hebrew, which has five porches. Now in these porches there lay a crowd of sick people: blind, lame, paralysed. And there was a man there who had been 38 years with his affliction. Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that it had already been a long time. He says to him, ‘Do you want to be healthy?’ The sick man said to him, ‘Lord, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I’m on my way, someone else goes down before me’.
Jesus said to him, ‘Up you get, pick up your mattress – and walk!’
And immediately the man was healthy; and he picked up his mattress, and walked!
Now it was a Sabbath that day. So the Judaeans said to the man who had been cured, ‘It’s the Sabbath, and you’re not allowed to pick up your mattress’.
He answered them, ‘The one who made me healthy –he’s the one who told me, “Pick up your mattress and walk”.’
They asked him, ‘Who’s the man who said to you “pick up and walk”?’ But the one who had been cured didn’t know who it was; for Jesus had withdrawn, since there was a crowd in the place.
After this Jesus finds him in the Temple and says to him, ‘Look – you’ve become healthy. Don’t sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.’
The man went off and reported to the Judaeans that it was Jesus who had made him healthy; and because of this the Judaeans started persecuting Jesus, because he did these things on the Sabbath.

Water is a powerful symbol of resurrection life. In today’s first reading, it functions as a symbol of Israel’s return after the exile. It may help to recall that Ezekiel’s vision occurs at a time when the Jerusalem Temple has been utterly destroyed; so what we have in our reading is a vision of what might be in the future. The water of life is coming out of the temple, running eastwards, towards where the Messiah might be expected to come, and where the sun rises, and in the rough direction of Babylon. Then the water turns south, following the Wadi Kedron, where eventually it will end up in the Dead Sea, so-called because the evaporation of the water (the river Jordan has nowhere else to go) leaves a sticky saline solution where almost nothing can grow. But God is in charge, and we are invited to watch the fresh water, all the time increasing in quantity, so that as Ezekiel’s guide moves on, the water gets higher and higher, up to his ankles, knees and eventually hips, before it becomes impassable.

Then we are invited to feel its fertility, as there are “very many trees on both sides”. Not only that, but we watch it flowing to the same Dead Sea and making that also fertile and fresh, so that fish can be found there, and trees on every side which carry fruit every month, because the water comes from the (currently destroyed) Temple. It is a powerful illustration of the Resurrection towards which God is inviting us to journey.

That same God is visualised in the psalm for today: “a stream whose channels give joy to the city of God…God is in its midst; it shall not be shaken”. Underlying this poem is the absolute certainty of the presence of God “the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold”. That is what gives us the ability to hang on for the resurrection that God will bring.

Sadly that resurrection joy is not the emotion uppermost in the mind of the one who is healed in today’s gospel. I am inclined to call this man “Old Grumpy”, because he complains that others have got to the resurrection experience before him, he sneaks on Jesus to the religious authorities who complain that he is carrying something on the Sabbath, and so eventually starts the persecution that will bring Jesus to his death. He cannot feel  the Resurrection-experience that is acted out before the waters of Bethzatha. We note the presence of those who are “blind, lame, paralysed”, and Jesus’ attentive and loving gaze on “Old Grumpy”, including his awareness that the man has been in this plight for 38 years. Jesus asks a question (a good one: “do you want to be healthy?”) and gives a command: “up you get” (we should notice that this command uses one of the two Resurrection words in the New Testament) “pick up your mattress and walk”. Technically, of course, that is a breach of the Sabbath regulations, but for the evangelist it is matter for resurrection joy. For Jesus’ opponents it is the beginning of the journey that will end in his death. Which side are you on?

  • When has God been most present to you?
  • Am I envious of others and, because of this, do I complain about my own life?
  • What might be the ‘mattress’ in your life that you need to ‘pick up’ and move from?

Scripture translation by Nick King SJ. Reflections by Nick King SJ and Annemarie Paulin-Campbell, courtesy of Jesuit Institute South Africa.