Based on John chapter 9, Lectionary Gospel Text for March 30, 2014
Seminary professor Haddon Robinson tells the story of a young woman who talked to her pastor about her sin of pride. One week she confessed, “Pastor Jill, every Sunday I come to church and look around and think to myself that I am the prettiest girl in the church. I try to stop but I just can’t. Am I horribly sinful?” Pastor Jill looked at her and said, “No dear, not sinful; just horribly mistaken.”[i]
Today’s Gospel text, which is the entire 9th chapter of John, offers way too much to try to cover in one Sunday, yet this is what the Lectionary writers give us. I’ve spent months preaching on single chapters of the Bible before, so how I am going to cover all of this in 30 minutes still remains a mystery. I just want to state up front that there is so much that I could talk about but will only skim over today and try to make a few points as I go along.
Our story begins with Jesus and his disciples walking along and they encounter a man who was born blind. The born part is significant because in the 1st century a person that became blind after birth was believed to still have a chance of recovering their sight. But a person born blind likely did not have the anatomical structures to support sight. So to heal a person that lost their sight was something special, but to heal a person born blind was considered impossible.
But this wasn’t the only set of beliefs that the disciples were carrying with them on that journey. We find them asking this peculiar question to Jesus in verse 3: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
I think that this question does two things: it shows the common thought process of the day and it showed how little most people had actually considered the issue. The thought process begins with some kind of suffering: a disability, a problem, or a form of suffering. The assumption is that this issue is the result of sin. And perhaps if you really want to stretch a bit you could say that all of our problems are a result of sin, the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree that was forbidden, death and decay entered into this world. Both Adam and Eve and even the serpent were punished.
But to say that someone’s current suffering is the result of their individual sin, to say that God hurts someone here and now because of something that they have done, is just bad theology. And every time there is an earthquake, tornado, mudslide, or airplane crash, someone is out there saying that this is God’s wrath being poured out because of someone’s sins. Of course it is never the sins that I suffer from. I’ve never heard a tornado blamed on those gossips, gluttonists, or people who fail to give a certain percent of their income to the church. Nope, it always seems to be the LGBT community, the abortionists, or feminists that get the blame.
Elsewhere Jesus refutes this line of thinking. When a tower falls on some people, killing them, Jesus essentially says that bad things happen to good people sometimes. We can’t blame them as sinners, and we also should not blame God. We get no explanation for why these things happen, but Jesus clearly says that illness, disabilities, and natural disasters are not the result of sin. And as I’ve said many times before, I believe the entire book of Job is meant to prove that point.
I also mentioned that the disciples’ inquiry reveals how little they had actually thought about this subject before asking the question, because to me it just seems silly. When they ask the question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” should it not have registered to them that a man born blind could not have sinned and caused his own blindness? Did they think he had sinned in his mother’s womb?
It could be that I am missing something here, but it just seems to me that the disciples had this preconceived idea of why bad things happen and they never really took the time to think about why they believed what they believed.
I know that I am as guilty of this as anyone else. We grow up hearing things taught to us by our parents, family, teachers, and friends, and we just assume them to be correct. This is the Gospel truth! Other things are never taught to us verbally, but we learn them by watching others.
However, I would say that this scripture seems to have less to do with a physical healing than it does a metaphysical revelation. Giving sight to a blind man is a wonderful thing, but there is a different kind of blindness in this story. Jesus uses the metaphor of blindness to describe a limited understanding of who God is and what God is calling us to. And in doing so, he challenges the understanding of the Pharisees and the disciples.
I want to focus on the man born blind as I think he reveals to us how our metaphorical blindness can be lifted. Let’s walk through this passage and see the way that this man refers to Jesus.
In verse 11 we find the recently-healed man explaining who opened his eyes and how he did it. He says, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’”
Immediately after his healing, he simply calls Jesus, “The man called Jesus.”
We jump ahead to verse 17 and we find the healed man being interrogated by the Pharisees. Some are saying that Jesus is a sinner because he healed the man on the Sabbath. Others are saying that he must be from God because, well, because he healed a man born blind. So they turn to the healed man and ask him, “What do you say?”
The healed man gives a short and simple answer, “He is a prophet.”
We go further in the story and the healed man is becoming more articulate. The Pharisees are refusing to listen to his testimony and yet repeatedly ask him about Jesus. They ask the man where Jesus is from and this is his answer, which is found in verses 30-33:
Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
Where does he say Jesus is from? He is from God. And this testimony got the healed man thrown out of the synagogue.
Let’s look at one more progression. We come to the end of this chapter and we find Jesus and the man reunited. And Jesus asks the man, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” And the healed man asks a very good question. He says, “Who’s that?” to which Jesus replied, “I am.”
Verse 38: “[The healed man] said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”
His physical blindness may have been healed immediately, but the metaphorical healing took a little bit longer. He started by simply calling Jesus “Jesus,” then moved to calling him a prophet, “from God,” and finally “Lord.”
Spiritual blindness isn’t something that we overcome in one moment. It takes time to grow and progress, to learn and develop.
I have mentioned before to some of you that there was a time when I thought I had God pretty well figured out.
I was 24.
I was serving in an associate pastor role in Ohio and I was highly influenced by a particular form of Christianity. This means that I read certain Christian writers, I listened to certain Christian pastors, and I listened to certain Christian musicians. And I very clearly remember thinking that I had arrived at full knowledge of God. I won’t go into all of the details now to save myself from too much embarrassment, but just let me say that I was blind. I was a follower of Jesus, for sure. But I was as blind as the Pharisees.
Then someone asked a question for which I had no helpful response. My canned and prepared answers began to fail to satisfy even my own questions. A baby is stillborn. A child gets cancer. September 11, 2001 happens. None of these events fit into the box where I had conveniently shoved God.
Seminary expanded my worldview all the more as I found out that not only did I not have all of the answers, I didn’t even know some of the questions that were being asked. I learned that there are things that are very clear in the Bible, but are also very convenient to skip over. I’ve heard that there are over 300 verses in the Bible that have to do with helping the poor. Sure, I had read them, but I read them with blind eyes and I needed someone to help me see.
I needed someone to help me see the Bible through the eyes of a community. We live in an individualistic society that tells us that everything is about me. All it took was for someone to show me that when the Bible says “you,” it is often a plural, a “y’all.” Sure, I’m a part of the “y’all,” but the Bible isn’t all about me. It about God reconciling all things to himself! I was blind to this before someone helped me see.
Finally, I have been moved through the reading of theology done by minorities. African Americans, women, Latinos. I realized last fall that I had gone through over 20 years of formal education and never had an African American teacher. Wow, was I ever blind!
The story of the man born blind really has little to do with Jesus actually healing the man’s physical condition. Yes, that was a wonderful thing and it revealed the power and glory of God. But this story is about a different kind of blindness. When we think we have everything figured out, when we think we know all there is to know about God, it is then that we are blind. The blind are those who see but refuse to learn, grown, and believe.
[i] I owe my title, opening joke, and sermon framework to the “two bubbas” at: http://lectionarylab.com/2014/03/24/year-a-the-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-30-2014/