Lent 4a, March 26, 2017

March 27, 2017

The Unseen Truth

John 9:1-41


1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.


This story opens with the disciples asking Jesus what they considered to be a very legitimate theological question.  In fact they probably thought their question would be pleasing to Jesus.  They were trying to show him how they wrestled with big religious questions, but I’m thinking the response they got was far more profound than anything they expected. What Jesus did was to use their question and the blind man they had encountered to totally dismantle conventional religious thinking about the way God operates.


I think it’s worth noting that the Book of John was the last of the Gospels to be written about Jesus. It was written at a moment of crisis in the Jewish community, and I’m sure that had an impact on the way John told this story. Things had gotten bad between the Jews who loved and followed Jesus and the more traditional Jewish community, and the followers of Jesus had been expelled from the synagogue.


I think it’s probably hard for us to imagine why loving Jesus was such a scandalous thing to do, but it was, and it created terrible tension within the Jewish community. Jesus didn’t just represent love and light to those who were invested in traditional ways of seeing God. He represented a threat to established order, and the nature of that threat is revealed in this very story.


This good question the disciples thought they had asked actually revealed the bad understanding of God that Jesus wanted to correct. They didn’t simply ask Jesus why a man would be born blind, they asked Jesus who’s fault it was: the man or his parents?


And Jesus found this to be an excellent opportunity to turn their thinking upside down and reveal a whole new way to understand God. Of course in so doing he further alienated himself from the religious authorities. The leaders of the Jewish community presided over very clear understandings about the way God operated, and they weren’t ready for misfortune to be seen in any way other than as judgement from God. When something bad happened they were certain that there was someone to blame. They had very clear answers to why things happened and how God operated.


I don’t know what makes some people more comfortable with uncertainty than others. And of course we all have different levels of discomfort with different kinds of uncertainty. It drives me crazy to not know where an unusual sound is coming from in the car or why I have a certain pain in one spot or another. These are the things I want to know and I want to know for sure. But certainty about other things isn’t so important to me.


I had a recent encounter with a Baptist friend who somewhat jokingly pointed out that we Methodists just aren’t as clear about some things as the Baptists are, and he said he had some appreciation for that because it’s a burden to have to carry around the truth all the time. I really didn’t know if he was kidding or not, but it was funny to me.


I tend to have more appreciation for people who harbor a reasonable degree of uncertainty about what they know than those who have no doubt about anything. I once heard a professor give a very thoughtful and informative answer to a question that a student asked, and the student responded by saying how interesting that was, and to that the professor said: And it might be true. Which was funny and maybe a little unsetting to the student, but I think the professor preferred to promote curiosity more than to disseminate information.


Certainty is a fine thing when it’s right, but certainty can be a terrible thing when it’s combined with a lot of authority and it’s not right, and that’s what was going on with the religious authorities of Jesus day. And the way they portrayed God was just wrong. In fact this whole episode raises the question of who was actually born blind.


I’ve never been around too many people who were blind, but when I was the pastor in Mammoth Spring I had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with a couple who were both completely blind.  They had both gone blind as adults due to diabetes, and they had met and married while they were in the Arkansas School For the Blind in Little Rock.  They were from Jonesboro, but they had chosen to live in Mammoth Spring because they had found a small house above one of the shoals on the Spring River, and they liked the sound of the water.


They were a remarkable couple.  They were largely independent, and they had actually done much of the remodeling work in their house on their own.  I was over at their house visiting one day, and I needed to go to the bathroom, so I went in and shut the door only to discover that I was in complete darkness.  They hadn’t bothered to connect the light fixture yet. I came to understand that blind people have different priorities when it comes to doing remodeling.


Mike was the man’s name and he was actually able to operate a table saw and several other power tools.  When I remarked that I was amazed that he could do such a thing, he responded by saying that people who are blind are less likely to get their fingers cut off on electric saws than sighted people because blind people don’t make as many assumptions as sighted people do.


And I guess that’s often the problem with us sighted people – we make too many assumptions. And not just when we are operating power tools.  It was the people who thought that they could see that gave Jesus the hardest time. They made too many assumptions about their own righteousness and because of that they lost more than fingers.


This story of Jesus healing the man born blind is a powerful portrayal of the need for us all to be mindful of the ways in which we can be blind to the truth. It’s easy for us to see how blind the Pharisees were to the righteousness of Jesus, but I don’t think it’s so easy for us to see the ways in which we buy in to the false images of God in our own day.


This story has a happy ending. The man who was born blind not only gained his sight but came to see God when he looked upon Jesus. And this is the same happy ending that can occur for us, but this story also reveals the powerful way in which darkness can take hold in the lives of people who are under the illusion of serving God. This story isn’t just an indictment of a small band of misguided religious leaders. I believe this story reveals the extent to which any of us are capable of going in order to protect our favorite illusions. We love to think of Jesus as being the light of the world — until that light begins to bear down on the blemishes that we would rather keep concealed.


The scary thing to me in this story is that the Pharisees, the bungling villains of the story, were people who had dedicated themselves to serving God. They certainly knew more scripture than the man who was born blind, and yet the man who was born blind was the only man who was willing and able to see the truth. There’s good news in this story, but it also serves as a warning to all of us who call ourselves disciples.  It’s a warning for us not to assume that we can see as clearly as we sometimes like to think we can.


When the disciples asked Jesus why the man was born blind, he answered them by saying he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. I don’t take this to mean that God puts people in painful situations in order for God to come to the rescue, but I believe that God can be revealed in any situation if we will have the eyes to see and the hearts to understand, and that is an ongoing challenge and opportunity for all of us.


On any given day we can be as blind as a Pharisee or as clear eyed as the formerly blind man was when he saw Jesus for the first time. Of course most of us are somewhere between those two extreme positions on most days, and our challenge is to maintain the kind of spiritual hunger that will move us ever more closer to the light and away from that kind of darkness that’s perpetuated by self-satisfaction.


Somehow we must learn to be as diligent and intentional as is a blind man at a table saw in our pursuit of God’s truth and how we shape our lives around that truth. The Pharisees weren’t intentionally hiding the truth about God’s ways – they were blinded by a culture and a religious tradition that had no regard for the light of Christ, and it caused them to be unable to see what was true. They didn’t have to react to Jesus the way that they did, but it’s not easy to go against the pressure of peers and the expectations of society.


I think the lesson for us is to maintain vigilance over our hearts and to pay attention to those things that challenge our cherished assumptions. Gratefully we aren’t as judgmental of people who are born with unfortunate conditions as they were in Jesus’ day, but it’s easy for me to believe we harbor our own forms of cruel judgment and distorted views of who God is. There’s an insidious nature to sinful behavior – there’s always a way for it to be masked by righteousness. Often we don’t even know of the ways in which we’re cooperating with darkness, and this is why we need to be attentive.


We should all have the wisdom of a blind man at a table saw and make no assumptions about what can happen if we aren’t careful to protect our hearts from the conditioning of our world to make quick judgments of people and situations that we don’t fully understand.


We are very fortunate to have the wisdom and love of Jesus to guide us. Gratefully we haven’t been trained to reject what he did and taught, but we don’t need to think our only task is to claim his as our savior. Our job is to embrace and to share the kind of love he had, and we don’t need to assume that’s an easy thing to do.


Of course we are also fortunate to have the help of the Holy Spirit in this regard. We aren’t on our own to figure out how to share the love of Christ. And as surely as God’s works were made known in the life of the man born blind, those same works can be made known in each of us.  Thanks be to God. Amen.


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