Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14,
Blind, But Now I See
Imagine for a moment what it would be like to have been blind from birth, to sit in darkness, to need help with the basic activities of life. You must beg to receive your daily bread. In the culture of the time, if you didn’t have any money, or family to care for you, you would have been destitute, outcast. And then Jesus comes along to where you are sitting, without judging you and saying that sin somehow caused your condition. He actually speaks to you. And then he asks you to do something strange. He spits in the mud and makes a paste, spreads it on your eyes, and then asks you to go wash in the pool of Siloam. And when you do, suddenly you can see! The beauty of colors, of sky, of earth, of animals, and especially human faces, the face of Jesus and your parents, fills you with joy and wonder. It is overwhelming, and you feel quite overcome. Who is this man, who can cure blindness? Who is he? You wonder, but your heart is singing, and somehow your intuition tells you he is from God.
There is so much packed into this story. Like the recent scripture passages we have heard over the past several weeks, the gospel writer is using the story as an opportunity to reveal the nature of Jesus. As I have mentioned before, John’s gospel is filled with conversations that then become monologues with Jesus proclaiming his unity with the Father from before time, and his nature as the Son of God. He uses “I am” a lot in this gospel, “I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the door.” The gospel is also a window into what was going on in the life of the early church at the time. As the last gospel written, John was probably composed around the year 90 A.D, when the church was struggling with its identity and seeking to balance its roots in Jewish tradition with the universal call to share the Gospel with all people. Believers began to suffer persecution for their faith, and were thrown out of their previous places of worship. There is a lot of talk about darkness and light, those who do evil and who don’t believe, and there was probably the expectation the Jesus was going to come again soon in his glory. And yet, while that expectation of his coming in glory was in the future, in John’s gospel, it is also being realized in the present, in the here and now. Jesus is the light of the world now, the bread of the world now. He is the resurrection and the life, now. The dead are being raised, the blind are being given sight, the lame walk, and people are coming to believe, now. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus is fulfilling God’s promise to reconcile the world to himself.
This is the setting for today’s passage, the backdrop for this story of grace and faith, of fear and doubt, of judgment and also of compassion, courage, and hospitality. What did the story mean for those who heard it so many years ago, and what might it mean for us? What does this story teach us about our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters?
First of all, I think it teaches an important lesson about the mystery of illness and suffering. In the beginning of today’s passage, the disciples see the blind man and asked Jesus who sinned, the man or his parents, to cause his distress? In ancient times, people commonly believed that illness and infirmity were punishments for sin. As if the person afflicted weren’t suffering enough, imagine what it would be like to believe it was because of some sin or shortcoming in his or her life! Jesus refutes this and says the blindness is not the result of sin. He says he was born blind “so God’s works might be revealed in him.” I don’t think that is to say God caused him to be blind so that he could heal him later, because that’s not the way of love. Suffering is not sent by God, but is an inevitable part of living as imperfect beings in an imperfect world, and God longs for us to have wholeness. Sometimes it comes through a physical cure, as in our story for today, other times not. But God always brings healing to our deepest spirit.
Second, Jesus’ response to the blind man is deeply, radically compassionate and hospitable. He invites people to be seen, loved, and included in community. Many of the religious authorities of the time reduced religion to a set of beliefs and purity codes that were burdensome and kept people distant from God, rather than drawing them close, as Jesus’ Abba, the Father, longed to do They put rules ahead of human need. Rules about what could be eaten and with whom and what could be done on the Sabbath missed the point of the great call to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus is condemned because he healed the man on the Sabbath. So the religious leaders consistently focus on the letter of the law, of following the rules, and miss out on grace. For them, purity of observance is more important than purity of the heart that shows love and mercy. At that time, and sadly, still in our own time, people who are disabled, suffer diseases, or mental illness are seen as invisible, unworthy. Jesus will have none of that. Not only was the blind man in the story able to see after his encounter with Jesus, he was seen, and valued, and cherished, and invited into relationship with the living God. For us as Jesus’ followers there is no one who is beneath our notice or unworthy. All are called to fellowship in the body of Christ.
Finally, this gospel juxtaposes physical and spiritual blindness. Physical blindness affects the body, the outward self, but spiritual blindness is a condition of the heart. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and religious authorities because they condemn the blind man as a sinner, yet are oblivious to their own lack of charity, of compassion, and of living faith. They have their own preconceived ideas of what God is like, and box the Divine in with a fixation on rules, doctrines, and purity laws, when they should be focusing on works of love and mercy. They have their own beliefs of what the Messiah should be like and how he should behave, and they can’t let the scales fall from their eyes long enough, they can’t come before him in humility and not knowing long enough to see that when they are in the presence of Jesus they are in the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells. They are in a place of spiritual blindness because they find the darkness more comfortable than the light of truth that shows them their need and dependence on God alone.
What about us? What blinds us spiritually to the presence of God in our midst? Is it a judgmental spirit that looks for faults in others instead of graciously overlooking their flaws and appreciating how special and unique they are, gifted and cherished by God? Is it a heart that has forgotten how to sing, how to be grateful, to receive life as a gift? I know that at times I can have a complaining spirit, and am asking God to help me to give thanks and be grateful. Is it the tendency to live from a place of fear and mistrust, which keep us from seeing the face of Christ in our neighbors, all of them?
Friends, what keeps us struggling with spiritual blindness? Is it the desire for wealth and influence and power? Is it unhealed resentment and bitterness that casts a shadow and a dullness over our hearts so that we can’t enjoy a loving relationship with God or others? Or is it our own desire, buried deep inside, to be our own gods, to direct our own destiny, rather than joyfully surrendering ourselves to God? How is God inviting you to let Jesus touch the eyes of your heart and soul and fill you with his light and peace? The English poet and and Anglican priest John Newton let Jesus touch the eyes of his heart. He lived much of his early life without direction or concern for the life of his soul. He lived recklessly and aimlessly for himself, and became involved with the slave trade. He finally came to a point in his life, where in his words; he “professed his full belief in Christ, and asked God to take control of his destiny.” He then went on to become a priest, a prolific writer of hymns, and a fierce foe of slavery. God had healed the spiritual blindness and transformed him. People all over the world sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
Blind, but now I see. And yet even in our blindness and our darkness, God never abandons us. In that wonderful Psalm, 139, we read that even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. In John’s gospel we read that the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended it. God is calling us to invite Jesus into our hearts anew this Lent, and to let his light be our light, his vision our vision. May we all grow more and more in the brightness of the vision of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. Amen.