Monday, March 3, 2008

Blinded by the Light

(A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent based on John 9:1-41)

[Image: Jesus Heals Blind Man by Heinrich Hofmann]

I was thinking about situations in which light prompts flight.

When a spotlight lands on an escaped criminal, he runs.
When a light is thrown on in a darkened room, the cockroaches scatter.
When sunlight falls upon a vampire, he dissolves.

Why does light prompt flight? Is it not because in every case the light reveals something about the nature of the one upon whom the light has shined? As John said in an earlier part of his Gospel, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather then light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed” (John 3:19-20). Criminals, cockroaches, and vampires are all evil and so they flee before the light!

What John really had in mind, though, was the reaction that people had to the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus is the light of the world (9:5) and as the light of the world he reveals the truth about those who live in the world. He reveals the truth about you and me. He reveals the truth about all of us. But, in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson’s character Col. Nathan R. Jessep in A Few Good Men, sometimes we “can’t handle the truth.” Sometimes we want to run from the light because we want to run from the truth.

We learn some important things when we compare the responses of the blind man and the Pharisees to their encounter with the light of the world.

Consider first the blind man who was healed. Here was a man who knew and grew in his awareness of the truth about himself. At the beginning he knew the truth about this physical condition. There was no doubt that he was blind. He had been born blind. Having been born blind, he did not even know what it was to see. Blindness was all he knew; the concept of “sight” meant nothing to him. So he knew the truth about his physical condition.

Once he was touched by Jesus, though, he began to grow in his knowledge of himself and of Jesus. First, he grew in his awareness of himself. He insisted on the truth about the change that he had experienced. After he was healed, people questioned whether or not the man they now saw was in fact the formerly blind man. His neighbors identified him primarily by his disability and when the disability went away they had difficulty accepting that it was the same person. He insisted that it was he. “I am the man,” he said. Later, when pushed by the Pharisees to agree with their negative assessment of Jesus, he said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25). The light had come into his life and had brought illumination to him—that he knew; that he could tell; that he had to tell. He knew what he knew. He once was blind; now, he saw.

Second, he grew in his awareness of Jesus. When his neighbors asked the man how his eyes were opened, he said, “Jesus did it” and he told them how (v. 11). Joe Friday of Dragnet fame would have been pleased with his response. He had given just the facts.

When the man was asked by the Pharisees what he thought about the one who had opened his eyes, he replied, “He is a prophet” (v. 17). He realized that there was something from God in this man who had given him sight. He said so very explicitly later when the Pharisees asked him a second time how Jesus had opened his eyes. In the course of that conversation the Pharisees insisted that they did not know from where Jesus came. The man was shocked by that. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (vv. 32-33). Jesus was from God, he came to understand.

Finally, Jesus sought the man out after he had been driven away by the Pharisees and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man asked who it was that Jesus was talking about and Jesus said, “Me” to which the man replied, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. In that moment the blind man really gained his sight. In that moment his eyes had truly been opened. In that moment he saw the truth about Jesus and we can safely assume, although we know nothing else of what happened in the life of this man, that he lived the rest of his life trusting in Jesus and bearing witness to others of what Jesus had done in his life.

Consider next the Pharisees who remained blind. The Pharisees were blinded by the light of Jesus. When they were confronted by what Jesus embodied they could not see and accept who he was. But in fact the light accentuated the blindness that they already had, a blindness that was compounded by the fact that they thought that they could see just fine.

How were they blind?

They were blind to the compassionate ways of God. Let’s consider what had happened here. A grown man who had been blind from birth had received his sight. Wouldn’t you think that the first thing that supposed people of God would do in light of such an event would be to celebrate the marvelous grace and compassion of God that had been exhibited in Jesus? But no. The Pharisees’ first response was rather to debate whether or not someone who violated the Sabbath by making mud could in fact be a conduit for God’s power. They could not celebrate because of their anxiety that a regulation had not been followed. How much blinder can you be than to think that God cares more about the keeping of a rule than he does about caring for a hurting human being?

They were blind to the saving ways of God. They tried to explain away the healing of the man. They did not believe that he had actually been born blind until his parents confirmed it. Why was that so hard for them to believe? Did they just not believe in the healing power of God? I doubt that was it.

I suspect that we find our explanation in the question that the disciples had asked Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). Jesus pointed out that such was not the issue but rather that they needed to be on the lookout for what God was about to be up to in the man’s life. Their question, though, reflected the way that a lot of people thought and the way that the Pharisees were probably thinking. They believed that the man had been born in sin (see v. 34) and they could not tolerate the fact that the healing of such a one might just be a sign of radical grace and radical forgiveness. Such, they thought, could not be.

They could not accept where and how God was working because it did not fit with their vision of themselves or of the world. The man who had been healed persisted in telling them what had happened. He insisted that Jesus must come from God because otherwise how could he have been healed by him? Listen to their response: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (v. 34). They then drove him out of the synagogue. You see, in their view, they were the religious people, they were the righteous people, and so their vision of the way God worked had to be right. Here was someone who did not know what they did and who, to their way of thinking, was a sinner, and he was trying to instruct them.

And therein lies the rub. The blind man was poor in spirit; these Pharisees were not. The blind man was capable of simple child-like faith; these Pharisees were not. The light of Jesus revealed that the blind man had a heart that was ready to open up to God’s grace and love and forgiveness; these Pharisees did not. The eyes of the blind man—both physically and spiritually—were opened up by the light of Jesus; the eyes of these Pharisees were screwed even tighter shut by that same light.

The light blinded the Pharisees both to the good thing that had happened to the blind man and to the good thing that could happen to them because they were unwilling to recognize the need in themselves or in others. In a recent essay, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the effect that drought was having on her husband and her. They have a shallow well and they have been running low on water. So, to conserve, she’s been going to the laundromat. Folks there look at her like she doesn’t belong. Taylor said, though, that her going there has been a good thing.

Some of my friends feel sorry for me because I have to go to the laundromat, but I tell them not to. Not having enough water at home has brought me into contact with people who do not have enough of other things at home, and I am enjoying their company. I never really thought about it before, but scarcity evokes community.

When people share in scarcity they see themselves and each other in a different light. The Pharisees could see the need neither in themselves nor in the blind man nor probably in anyone else.

They thought they were passing judgment on the blind man (“You were born entirely in sins”) and on Jesus (he was a sinner who violated the Sabbath). In fact, they were passing judgment on themselves. They were revealing who they were and who they weren’t. The claimed to “see”—they were convinced that they saw the world, themselves, and Jesus in the right way—but in fact they were blind.

There is more hope for the truly blind than for those who claim to see; the latter are the self-righteous and the self-approving. But don’t such folks have to, somewhere down deep, know better? Don’t they?

I believe that there are important truths here for both kinds of people in the world and in the building—the lost and the saved.

For those of you who are, like the blind man in our text, well aware of the state of your life and the hole in your soul, you need to know that you can come into the light of Jesus and be saved.

For those of you who are, like the Pharisees, thinking that because you are at least a little better than the best person you know and that you really don’t need any help, the good news is that somewhere down deep you just may know better and the Lord is waiting to have you come into his light, admit what you are, and be saved.

Then for those of us who are Christians but are emphasizing the wrong things—keeping the rules rather than the compassion of Christ, being good rather than being forgiven, self-righteousness rather than real righteousness—you can be warmed up and lit up and brightened up by the light of Jesus.

Let the light show you who are and who you can be. Let Jesus shine his grace into you. The light of the world will show you the truth about who you are. But can you handle the truth? Will you run from the light or will you let the light change you?

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