Lent 4—Year A, March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
The gospels were not written to provide us a journalistic account of Jesus of Nazareth: Which is to say they were not written by some so-called objective reporters from the Jerusalem Times who have no opinion one way or another about this man. Rather, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by people living in faith communities that had been brought out of the darkness of the fear of death into the marvelous light of community, courage, compassion, and new creation. John, in fact, tell us in chapter 20:31, “These were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,[b] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”They are not stories just about events that happened once a long, long, time ago, rather they are stories of encounters with the living Christ that keep on happening today for those in need of God’s light.
John tells us early on in the gospel that Jesus is the light of the world, which means he can see things that we in our blindness cannot see. In the story of the man born blind Jesus sees something that is in plain view that others in the story, especially the leaders, could see, but do not see.
What the leaders, but also the disciples, see is a man who is a sinner who lives outside the will of God and deserves what has happened to him. Their central narrative is that bad things happen to people as the just deserts for their notorious sins. Their worldview is that this man’s sin is the most defining thing and the most interesting thing about him. Therefore, they are naturally focused on his past, where these sins must have occurred.
This view still exists inside the church and in other religions today.
- T. Wright wrote that he was just waking up when he heard a news report about someone who had been fired from their job for holding heretical views about the afterlife. He wondered, who could it be? Some theologian or a wayward bishop, who had denied the reality of the resurrection or the Trinity?
Turns out it was the coach in charge of the England National Football squad who had said, on the record, that the reason certain people were born with birth defects is because they had sinned in a former life.
Oddly, however, Jesus does not comment on the man’s past sins. Rather what he sees is the man’s present life: that is, he sees a man who is suffering. His blindness has reduced him to the life of a beggar who is dependent on people who look down on him and judge him.
So at this point, in a congregation like ours, we may start to feel pretty good about ourselves, because the Episcopal Church is not known for being over concerned with sin. Furthermore we may also see that this man is suffering and we would, on our good days, want to help relieve his suffering, just like Jesus does.
So far then, this story makes us feel pretty good about ourselves since we think we are on Jesus’ side in his confrontation with the leaders.
But then, Jesus also has something to teach liberals.
So while these conservatives see the man through the lens of his past sins and while the liberals see him through the lens of his present suffering, Jesus goes beyond both. Jesus sees this man’s future—a future inside the love, and healing, and power of God.
Karl Barth puts it this way: “Jesus does not first look at his past and then at his tragic present in the light of it. But from his present Jesus creates for the man born blind a new future.” Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, 2, page 223.
“Jesus does not ask, therefore, concerning his sin. He does not hold it against him. He does not denounce him because of it. The help and blessing that He brings is quite irrespective of his sin. He acts almost (indeed exactly), in the same way as his Father in heaven, who causes His sun to shine on the good and the evil, and His rain to fall on the just and the unjust”, says Barth. Ibid. Matthew 5:45
As the story progresses the Pharisees double-down on their claim that sin is the key to understanding this man. For them he is determined by his past and therefore Jesus must also be a sinner for going against their view that God is punishing this man for his sins.
Even the man’s parents can’t go against the Pharisees, so they throw their poor son under the ox cart and say, “He’s of an age, ask him.”
It is profoundly difficult to proclaim a minority story against the dominant story told by those in power. Yet, the Bible is just such a story: as when God hears the cries of the slaves in Egypt and overwhelms Pharaoh; when the prophets pronounce God’s Word against the kings and queens of Israel and their story that might makes right. Not even King David can avoid the prophet Nathan who announces God’s judgment in favor of the murdered Uriah the Hittite and his widow Bathsheba.
And now the humble Jew from Nazareth, the Word of God made flesh, moves against the story that enslaves this blind man and every person who is trapped in the past and robbed of a future as a beloved daughter and son of God. So we might reflect on what in our past is keeping us bound and in darkness?
Because Jesus’ main focus is on moving this man from his suffering in the present into a new, glorious future, this man has a decision to make: whose story is he going to trust.
After receiving his healing the man grows in his understanding of who Jesus is: He starts by calling Jesus a man he doesn’t know; then he says he is prophet of God, then finally he sees him as the Son of Man who he worships as a conduit for the power and love of God.
This is the journey from blindness to sight, from darkness to light, from ignorance to insight.
In my experience this journey doesn’t happen just once, but over and over as Jesus leads us toward wholeness.
I listen to a wonderful podcast called “The Deconstructionists” Podcast hosted by two young, exuberant, maybe 30-something guys who are all about helping folks who are in transition in their life of faith to deconstruct that old faith, so that there can be a creative reconstruction. They have guests who cover the spectrum from theology, Bible, science, philosophy, music, and psychology. Their listeners range from atheists to fundamentalists and everything in-between.
I heard one guest say Jesus brings this deconstruction and reconstruction, not once, but throughout our lives. He says he always expects Jesus to be a bit uncomfortable to be around, because Jesus is always leading him out of his comfortable places of blindness into the uncomfortable realms of light. No growth happens until we admit we’re blind and need help.
When I first saw the length of this gospel reading I nearly choked. How in the world was I going to survive reading it and how were you going to survive listening to me droning on. But then it occurred to me this gospel like the one last week about the Samaritan woman at the well cried out to involve everyone.
Because when we all participate it becomes clear that this isn’t just a moldy old story about a blind man dead now for 2000 years. Rather, John wants everyone to make this same journey with Jesus from blindness to sight, from darkness to light, from ignorance to insight.
And therefore, like the man who receives his sight, we have a decision to make every day.
Whose story about our lives are we going to trust?