Improvising in Life

Delivered February 2, 2003 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: Theme: No misstep, sidestep, or lost step, need prove irreversible. Just like the cardinal principle of musical improvisation – “there are no bad notes, only bad resolutions”, God is in the business of redeeming all things.

Sermon Text:
John 5:1-15

Can you believe this? I can’t, and I am standing here, and I still can’t believe it! That I am back here. For those who have not met me my name is George Antonakos. I am once again, at least for five or six months, the interim pastor at Central. It is hard to imagine that six months ago that I would be standing here. I didn’t imagine it! I thought somebody else would be standing here on February 2nd. I wonder about the person that has missed the last few weeks and has come here today. You know they didn’t see the News and Views article, they didn’t come to the annual meeting and see my friend Arnold show up, they didn’t get it through the grapevine, and all of a sudden-haven’t I seen that guy somewhere before-kind of a thing. Twilight Zone music starts to play – time warp enters into their mind. I can assure you this is February 2 and I think it’s absolutely hilarious that the first Sunday back is Groundhog Day. I do!And I just think that is providential and in fact there is a legend that if an interim pastor wakes up and sees his shadow that there will be six more weeks without a pastor. And I can hear some of you saying, we will take six weeks. Six weeks will be good. The other tie in of course is Bill Murray’s offbeat movie and we have a clip, but there’s gremlins in that sound system and so unfortunately you might have seen some of it silent up here and unfortunately I can’t show you the clip. But how many people have seen Groundhog Day? Most of you. Okay so you know. But for most of you who don’t know it’s about a highly self-centered weatherman who keeps, for whatever reason, having to repeat February 2 over and over and over again. At first he uses this unusual circumstance to take advantage of people. He learns things about people that he couldn’t possibly know unless he was in that kind of time warp. Then the next day he will try to seduce somebody or he will try to take advantage of somebody in some way, and then after that kind of takes care of itself, he gets really depressed. Then you see a series of scenes where he tries to end his life in different creative ways. He is so frustrated, but he just keeps waking up at 6:00 in the morning, the Sonny and Cher tune goes on the radio and he hears it and he is in it again. And finally, it dawns on him that maybe there is an opportunity in this situation. Maybe something can happen to make him a better person and so he uses his bizarre circumstances to help other people. I mention that because I think it has got something to do with what God is doing here. For whatever reason, God is saying you get to do another chapter at Central. Central gets to do another chapter with you. And it’s not that what we have experienced before was not anything but positive, but it’s just we get to make the soil even more fertile for the chapter that’s coming with the long term installed pastor, and we get to improve on it.

And improved sounds a lot like improvise and that’s what I want to talk about today. God is allowing us to improvise together. Here’s Webster’s definition of improvise:

To sing extemporaneously, to make, invent or arrange offhand, to fabricate out of what is at hand.

So my brother Bob here at the piano will give us an example of improvisation. Go ahead. (Music plays) You could hear some discordant notes, right? But then he came out of those discordant notes with a nice flourish, right? I am indebted to my friend Blane Smith who has written a number of books for InnerVarsity and sends out a monthly newsletter, maybe some of you still get Blane’s newsletter, but back in November he had a great quote in his Nehemiah notes when he said, “There are no bad notes, only bad resolutions.” And he goes on to say this and I will put it up on the screen for you.

“The musician who improvises plays a spontaneous sequence of notes that fits well with a given song. Even though it may bear little relation to the melody, the most thrilling part of improvising is discovering that any note you play, no matter how unintentionally sour can still work fine in your solo if you resolve it right.”

Now I am not suggesting that what came before was a blunder or anything like that, but we get to improvise and God gets to improvise with us for the benefit of the resolution that will come down the road. Now here’s the point. With God in the mix, no miss step, no side step, no lost step need prove irreversible. In life, as in music, we have an opportunity to learn or be reminded that any mistake can be redeemed and some of you need to really hear that today. Now I ask you, anybody care to admit and you don’t have to show your hands or anything, but just kind of admit internally that maybe this past week, just maybe you made one mistake. I mean, okay not this past week. How about this past month maybe. Well you know, something you said that you wish you could take back. Do you ever have those days? I think about that, I think there are about five days that I wish I could take back in my ministry when I have really for whatever reason had brain freeze and said something that I wish I hadn’t said. How about a miss step at school or at work, a poor decision or a mistaken judgment, a loss step of not acting quickly enough? Too often we are too quick to assume that those mistakes are irreversible, and we are so hard on ourselves, some of us, that even if we don’t think a miss step or lost step is our fault, we can still grow so deeply discouraged and fear that God and life have turned against us. So then we just stay in a mode of kind of fatal error mode and that voice, and I call it the Eeyore voice, you know Eeyore who is Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Eeyore, that’s voice that’s in. It’s over; I have blown it you know. Woe is me kind of thing. I will go eat worms or whatever. God doesn’t love me anymore. And even if God does love me, he is really not going to help me out of this one. So we get stuck and inertia sets in and failure occurs by default and we forget the words of some wise person who once said, “This thing called failing is not in falling down, it’s in staying down.” And that’s where I think the man that we are about to read about in John, Chapter 5 is. So let’s look at it together. John, Chapter 5, verses 1-15. We will read from the NIV version here.

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people use to lie– the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.” So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.”

Do you want to get well? Literally, do you wish to become whole? There are a few things that I should point out that might help us get past the limits of English translation here. First is that we really do not know what this mans problem was. It says the blind, the lame and the paralyzed and then it says one who was there. The word paralyzed is an English translation of a Greek word, there is no Greek _?___ in the text. For whatever reason they assumed well this guy couldn’t walk so he must be paralyzed. The word that is in there means to dry up, to be dried up or to wither. So it could be any one of a number of problems that this guy had. Now the other part that you have to understand is in the question that is asked, the voice that it is asked in, in terms of grammar, assumes that possibly the person being spoken to wouldn’t be only passive, like this act just wouldn’t be done on him, but that maybe would require something from him to act on himself, so to speak. And then when you go to verse 14 and you see that Jesus finds him a second time in the temple, and he connects his spiritual and his physical problems together, see he healed him physically and then he went and dealt with him spiritually. And he says, see that you stop sinning unless something worse befall you. I think that is a reference to the final judgment, but the point is, when you tie all of these things together it seems as though in this particular case that this guy was bringing something to the table in terms of what his issues were, and it’s not that sickness is an automatic result of sin, sometimes our sin very frankly does cause certain circumstances, but I would never be one to say that every sickness that happens is because of our personal sin. But somehow in this situation there seems to be some connection. So we need to ask ourselves, if we are anything like this guy in the sense that maybe there is an improvisation that God wants to do in our life, but we are really not listening or we are just hearing the sour notes.

And so I pose a question to you. Where does God want to improvise on any sour notes in your life? Where does God want you to improvise on any sour notes in your life? You see we know as people of a certain theology that in this case Presbyterians, that we believe God has to initiate and certainly in this text Jesus initiated this conversation. God has to come to us and when God comes to us and initiates, we have to cooperate. We have to be willing to cooperate. So how would you answer this question? Where does God want me to improvise on any sour notes in my life? Or are you stuck thinking that your current string of sour notes is dooming you to a no win outcome?

That’s where I want to go for the rest of our time. And ask you; did you guys get one of these note things when you were walking in? It says Central notes and it has blanks on it? Good. During my time away I realized again, I was reminded again that we only remember about 10% of what we hear 48 hours after we hear it. And so I thought, you know what that is too much work to let these guys forget 90% of it. So I am going to use one of these note sheets. I am going to try to do it every Sunday that I am preaching to reinforce not only what we hear, but what we write and what we see. And so that’s why that is in there. So let’s look at it together. It’s called Rebounding from Setbacks and if you are not in a setback right now, just wait around and maybe you will be. And then you will have this to look at later. See you won’t forget it; you will be able to see it.

Number 1. With God’s help, work on developing a clear self-identity. How do you think that this guy may have perceived himself? Do you think that he might have been defining himself after thirty-eight years the same thing, day after day? Do you think he might have been defining himself by his problem? He is nameless. He is friendless. Who is that guy? Oh, that’s withered Joe. No, no, no. That’s too descriptive. That’s withered what’s his name. He is the guy that has been there thirty-eight years by that fifth column over there. Yet Jesus doesn’t approach him as an it or a persona or somebody who is stuck in a certain role. He approaches him as a person. Have you ever felt stuck in a role? Have you ever felt stuck in a rolea mother, role of mother? Have you ever felt stuck in that role? That’s all you are known as. Just mother. Have you ever felt stuck in a role of professional? Just what you do. Or felt stuck in the role of a provider maybe? Some people who are perpetual students are stuck in the student role. But we can be stuck in roles and those roles don’t really tell us who we are. It’s what causes people to say, why don’t they love me for who I am? Is it just for what I can offer? Or people say why can’t they see past my deficiency and see who I really am? You see, you don’t have to be withered up for thirty-eight years by a fool to be trapped. You can have a faulty self-identity, a faulty self-perception. And you can stay bound to that for a long, long time.

Consider the case of John. John is a 20-year-old. He has an executive father and a lawyer mother. He’s got every material advantage anybody could wish for. If you were to look at his life, you would say here is the life to be envied. But on further investigation you would find that that’s not true. Because John is stuck in a certain self-identity and here is how he would say it is. “I am the son of two success stories who must fulfill his destiny and find happiness by becoming a corporate lawyer millionaire by age 35.” That’s the way he defines himself. And so often he goes around sullen and depressed because his self-identity is not matching what is really in here.(touches his heart). He goes to his therapist and the therapist says, “John, tell me when you are really the happiest.” He thinks for a minute and he says, “Old John is really the happiest when he is driving his sports car and his stockbroker calls him and tells him he has made a killing.” The therapist says, “John, why do you refer to yourself as he instead of I. It almost sounds like you are a spectator going through life watching yourself.” That catches his attention. And after a long pause this is what he says, “Yeah, that’s about it. I am somebody else. I am not really the person they tell me that I am. I am really happiest when I am working with disadvantaged kids” and listen to this, “but I should have been born somebody else if I wanted to have that life.” Did you hear that? The mind, the heart, the Self-Perception, the future, the potential of a 20-year-old trapped just like this guy in the scripture because of an image, because of a perception.

How do you develop a clear self-identity? The best way I know, you will never know yourself until you encounter Jesus because He is the only one that’s got the keys. He is the only one that because God created you, He’s the only one that can help you find fulfillment in that creation. And so be open to encounters with Him. Also, by honestly sharing with other people who are safe what’s really in your heart. You know the Wild at Heart conference that is coming up in three weeks for men, and the men have promised that’s going on around here and being led by Bob Carmen and Ken Ziegler wrote about today in the News and Views. That’s a call from God. That’s a call from God to men that says come out of your anonymity and speak the truth. Tell people what’s really going on inside of you. That is another way to develop a clear self-identity. But see if you have grown up in a home where you never get to say what’s real, then you are behind the eight ball. But there are places, you get hurt in families and you get healed in families. And then the other thing to do would be to take that spiritual design course that you hear about every so often. Study, research, what is my design? What am I passionate about? What do other people see my gifts as? And then find your place. Develop a clear self-identity.

And then secondly on your paper and this is another way to develop that identity is to reject the spirit of self-pity. See I think this is what’s at the heart of this man, of the question that Jesus asked of his man. Because I think he was stuck in self-pity. And he poses it to us to try to jog us out of our defeatist thinking. Let me give the question to you another way. Jesus question is, do you wish to be made whole? Okay. Here is another way. And I often ask people this who feel stuck and I ask it of myself. Somebody is going on and on about their problems and I say stop. This relationship, this situation or whatever, I say, do you want it to be different? Have you ever felt stuck in a conflict with somebody, and you just don’t know how to approach it? How about asking them, do you want things to be different? I mean do you really want to be in this conflict or do you want to get out of it? You know, that question stops us in our tracks because it challenges us to think about what our real values are and what our real needs are. Do you want to be made whole? Are you involved in wanting to get better? Do you really want to? Not really Lord because then I would have to swallow my pride. No, I don’t think I want to be whole because I would have to admit that I screwed up. No, I don’t think I want to be made whole because I would just have to take too much responsibility. Do you get it? We just don’t want to leave the comfort zone of our unhappiness. There is payoff somewhere in there. And here is the ironic part, that failing to break through these inner barriers may underneath keep you from doing the very thing that you want to do the most. That’s the irony. And that some part of you knows that God wants you to do it, but you are afraid, and that’s where trust in Christ comes in again. Lord, help me with this thing.

The other day I heard a great one-line bromide for self-pity. If you can’t get out of it, get into it. I remember studying Hebrew in seminary and I was just like, I had just done the whole Greek thing and I had a little edge on the Greek thing because of my background, but it still was hard. Then all of sudden boom, around the corner comes Hebrew, which I had forgotten 90% of anyway. But I remember moping in the library for a week. I just couldn’t get started. Have you guys ever had that problem with a paper, like a term paper or project? You just can’t get started. And instead of doing something, you just moped or you procrastinated. If you can’t get out of it, get into it. Work. Jump in. Dive. Some people are like that at work. They are stuck in a situation and they don’t see anyway out. Instead of getting into it and starting to think, man let the creative juices flow. Let me get into this and maybe I can change my own circumstance, or just ride, ride out the self-pity. The Lord stands before us today and says, need help? I’m here.

Thirdly, turn away from a blaming attitude. Now in verse 7, after Jesus asks him the question, do you want to get well, after thirty-eight years would you not think that somebody who was asked that question might say yes. He doesn’t say yes. He says, “You know what Lord, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool.” Now I don’t know the tone of voice he said this in, but you could read this as he almost got enjoyment out of pointing out that others were really the problem. That others were really to blame for his predicament. This blaming thing is such a part of all of us because whenever we get stressed enough, one of the first reactions we have is to try to find the cause out there. Try to find the fault out there. You know you don’t have to go passed Genesis, chapter three before you see blaming in all of its glory. She did it. The devil made me do it. And then it goes all the way through the scriptures. All the way through to Moses and Joseph and David. It goes all the way through scripture to the New Testament and probably will never stop until the Lord comes back. It sounds this way in families. If you didn’t, usually there is a finger pointing at you, if you didn’t and you supply your own word, drink, sleep, work, goof, so much. If you didn’t (blank) so much, we would all be better off. Or here is another one. You never obey. If you would just listen, we would have peace around here. This happens in church families unfortunately. The older people say, it’s those young people. No respect for tradition. The young people say, it’s those old people. They are just stuck in their ways. And somebody says, no. It’s the pastor. He’s to blame. He is never around when you need him. Just like a cop. No, another person will say, no, it’s those elders. What a secretive bunch. They just meet behind closed doors and they don’t tell anybody anything. The elders say, no it’s the people. Now you get to fill in your word again. The people don’t…. give, pray, work, know the Bible, read. Enough. If they would just do, everything would be better off. And nobody asks the question, what can I do to make things better. What can I do to make things better? That’s the first step out of blame. What can I do to make things better? Thankfully Jesus was and always is asking that question because his goal was restoration, healing, binding and he wants to heal that blame thing that goes on inside of us, as well.

Fourthly, another way to rebound from setbacks is to learn to seek help from others. Why doesn’t a guy that is ill for thirty-eight years have anybody to help him? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. But one possibility is, he didn’t ask. He just assumed that somebody would say no or somebody would reject him or he would be imposing. All the reasons we have for not saying to somebody, would you help me? Maybe, with us we don’t want people to appear that we are needy, whatever. But again, usually the bottom line is pride. But if you ask any team or any organization how they got to where they needed to be, it’s because they were willing to ask each other for help.

That brings us to a conclusion. It’s on the back of your paper there. Here’s two ways to get a leg up. If you have mis-stepped, side-stepped, not stepped; the best step is to take the next step with Jesus. Take the next step with Jesus. You say, how? One, you will listen for his word. You have to get silent and you have to listen for His word. What was His word to this man? In verse 6 or 8. Jesus said to him, “Get up.” Now you can say, well wait a minute that is a miracle story. No, no He is saying that to you today and me. Get up. Get going. Do what I want you to do. So you will listen for His word and secondly, then in the “Nike” world, do it. You say, but I don’t know how to wake and rise. That is why I have this quote in here from George McDonald. Would you read the first two sentences of the first paragraph with me? I think he says it better than I could. Let’s read it together.

“I will tell you get up and do something the Master tells you. So make yourself His disciple at once. Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said do it or once abstained because He said do not do it.”

And then the first sentence of the second paragraph, read it with me.

“But you can begin at once to be a disciple of the Living One by obeying Him in the first thing you can think of in which you are not obeying Him.”

And he goes on to say the first thing that God brings to your conscious,don’t do this, do this. And then you will be a disciple, obey Him in the next thing.

You know we seldom move forward until we are ready to trust and obey. Some commentators have asked the question of this text, is there any theological freight in the thirty-eight years? You know people are numerologists, sometimes when they see things in numbers. There is not real strong evidence of this, but the one commentator goes back to Deuteronomy 2:14. In Deuteronomy 2:14 he talks about how for thirty-eight years, that was the length of time that it took for the last unbelieving warrior who would not take the land to die out. And so not only is this thirty-eight years, maybe referring to a time that has passed, but this thirty-eight years may be referring to this fellow, this is your opportune time. You’re going to cross into your own promised land because you are encountering the living God. It required him to take the next step of faith with Christ and that’s the very final thing. Perhaps the first thing that we need to do in taking the next step because so often we are frozen and stuck because we are expecting somebody else to make the first move. The next step may be to offer to others the same grace that Jesus Christ offers to you. What I want you to see in this scripture passage is, verse 8 comes before 14. It’s like no kidding. Verse 8 always comes before 14. No. Theologically he heals the man first and then he finds him in the temple and says stop sinning or else it could get worse. Do you see? You know we reverse it so often. We say, okay you guy’s shape up. My spouse or my kids or my work, you guys act more like this and I will do this. Jesus gets it the other way around. He just shows grace to this guy. And then he goes back and he warns him spiritually. Now listen. We still don’t know if the guy followed him. Because the next thing he does is he goes and rats on Jesus. He goes and tells the authorities who it was that healed him. At first he didn’t know. Jesus comes and warns him spiritually and then he goes and squeals. So it doesn’t matter what other people do. It doesn’t matter how they treat you. It doesn’t matter if they betray you or if they squeal on you. If they don’t agree with you or if they hurt you. Extend the same grace to them as Jesus would to you. That doesn’t mean keep getting beat up with the same two by four, but sometimes ask the question, is there something I can be involved with to make this situation better?

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus we give you thanks for your love and grace to us at all times and in all places. And we are people who stumble in many ways according to the scripture, but we thank you that one of the reasons that we are here is because you are here and we have all at least most, have come to the place of complete poverty. We are crippled and we cannot live this life apart from you. And so as we move to this table and shift from hearing the Word preached to experiencing the Word made visible, we pray that you would come to us again, and whatever get up means for us, that you would help us as we partake of this Holy meal. We will thank you for it in Jesus name. Amen.

Sermon Notes:

Improvising In Life: “Rebounding from Setbacks”

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” –John 5:6

With God’s help work on developing a clear self-identity. (5:5)
Reject a spirit of self-pity. (5:6)
Turn away from a blaming attitude. (5:7)
Learn to seek help from others. (5:8)
Two Ways to “Get a Leg Up”

Take the next step with Jesus.
Listen for his word. (5:6 & 8)
Then do it. (5:9)
“But I do not know how to awake and arise!”
I will tell you. Get up, and do something the Master tells you; so make yourself his disciple at once. Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not everything he tells you. If you can think of nothing he ever said as having had an atom of influence on your doing or not doing, you have too good ground to consider yourself no disciple of his.

But you can begin at once to be a disciple of the Living One-by obeying him in the first thing you can think of in which you are not obeying him. We must learn to obey him in everything, and so must begin somewhere. Let it be at once, and in the very thing that lies at the door of our conscience! Oh fools and slow of heart, if you think of nothing but Christ, and do not set yourselves to do his words! You but build your houses on the sand.
From Creation in Christ by George MacDonald

Offer to others the same grace that Jesus Christ offers to you. (5:14)