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Lent 4A Sermon
John 9: 1-41

March 26, 2017

 

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Please be seated. With the lengthy Gospel assigned for today and so much going on in it, I wanted to try something a little bit different. I am going to smoosh together the text from John 9 with my sermon, so that I can try to help us to connect with the message of this passage along the way. Before reading the first part, I want to point out that the people of Jesus’ time struggled with the whole, “cause and effect” view of life – that being healthy, wealthy and happy were all the result of someone’s goodness, and that illness, poverty or disaster was the result of someone’s sinfulness. We still have that mindset to some extent today, but not to this degree. That is what is behind the question that the disciples ask as we hear the beginning verses of this passage:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Some Biblical scholars have suggested that even Jesus’ words do not attempt to give a reason for the man’s condition, as if he was born this way so that God’s works may be revealed in him. There is no punctuation in the Koine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament; all punctuation in our English translations are attempts to understand the story, so it is possible that it might actually read, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. So, in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must do the works of him who sent me while it is day …” In other words, some things are just not explainable. They just happen because it is an imperfect world. But God has sent Jesus’ as his presence to heal sin and illness, and that is what Jesus did right then and there … even though it was on the sabbath; that sets up the next section, focusing on his conflict with the religious leaders over healing the man on the sabbath. As I read it, admire with me the humor with which it plays out. The Pharisees are certain that Jesus is an enemy of God, so much so that they refuse to believe that he could do anything resembling a good work. And the fact that he did it on the one day which they are commanded not to do works like this makes it all the worse! Their interactions with the man, his parents, and the people who witnessed it is nothing short of comic gold!

8The 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?’ 9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He 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.’12They 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.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then 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.’ 16Some 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. 17So 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 sight19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but 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.’ 22His 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. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

Notice the ways that this man is addressed or referred to: he is called the man who used to sit and beg, the man who had formerly been blind, and simply the blind man, until he is finally called, “the man who received his sight.” The first three designations root this man’s identity in his former life before Jesus’ interaction; and it was a life that was defined by his limitations of blindness and begging, his inability to contribute to society because of his physical condition. Because he would have been looked down upon with a condition caused by someone’s sinfulness, the community would have kept him at arm’s length, occasionally throwing him a few coins so he wouldn’t starve, but not wanting to get too close. He is still defined by that former condition even after he is healed.

I wonder how often we do that in our lives as well, defining ourselves in terms of limiting factors or difficult things we have experienced. Even if we’ve overcome them, and take a measure of pride in that, I still wonder if it does justice to our current reality that links us too strongly to the past. For instance, when we refer to someone as, “divorced” or “widowed,” are we honoring a significant relationship that has ended, or are we defining someone in terms of what they once were? Even a term like, “cancer-survivor” – which I know has many positive associations for those who have endured diagnosis and treatment and come out on the other side grateful for their recovery – can, I imagine, risk defining a person in terms of what they have overcome and reducing who they are to a single dimension. How we think about the man in the story who was healed and how we think about ourselves and others in these ways can be significant. I’ll get back to that notion in a minute; first, let me finish sharing this story as the blindness that once plagued this man is transferred to the Pharisees.

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.’25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He 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?’ 28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They 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?’ 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

It is unbelievable how the people refuse to believe that God can work in and through people and actions which are outside of their own circle or understanding. And yet, I think that we still act in this way today, don’t we? Do we truly trust the good of other faiths or religions, or are we still suspicious (at the very least) of their presence and motives? Even things that are not related to faith, like technology or science – do we believe our eyes even when shown evidence of their claims? Blindness is not only physical, but it goes into the spiritual and emotional realm as well.

This is probably one of my favorite passages of scripture, and I enjoy it every three years when it comes up in our Lent readings. It is a story of joyful healing, and God’s work being done in unexpected ways. The reactions from everyone in it is pure comic gold as they cannot believe the good thing that has been done for this one who was so easily defined by his sinfulness, limitations, and disability. The wonderful message of this passage to us today is that Jesus is far more interested in looking to the future with us than to our pasts! Just as he invites this man to faith and encourages him by answering his question about who the son of man is, with the playful line, “you have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he,” so also, we are invited into this wonderful relationship of seeing Jesus as God’s Son, and believing in his healing presence in our own lives.
I am not asking you to deny the importance of your past, or even of your scars or failures; I am asking you to let go in order to receive the open future that God has prepared for all of us. Think about what titles or former designations no longer serve you, and consider how you might grasp hold of the open future that Jesus’ grace and forgiveness and resurrection provide. It is important to occasionally look back, but remember, there is a reason the windshield in your car is so big and the rearview mirror is so small – even though it is important to glance back to where you have been, it is much more important to get where God is taking you!

This story of the man who is healed is good, joyful news, and in it God is calling us forward. Jesus’ cross reminds us that the hurts, sorrows, mistakes and regrets that have marked us may describe us, but they do not define us – for we are God’s beloved children. And Jesus’ resurrection assures us that God’s love is more powerful than our tragedies, and our future is open, filled with faith, sight, and healing. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.