Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent on March 22, 2020.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent


1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The Gospel reading this morning is St John’s account of our Lord’s healing of a man who had been blind from birth.  Our Lord uses it as an opportunity not only to heal the man, but also to teach his disciples about spiritual blindness and to challenge his critics about theirs.  St John includes this story in his Gospel to teach us about ours.
It is important to remember that for St John and, indeed, for all the New Testament writers, we are all born blind.  Sadly, many of us, like the Pharisees in the story, simply refuse to admit it.  As they say to Jesus, ‘Surely, we are not blind, are we?’

Throughout the Gospel, St John, over and over again, makes the point that although Jesus is the light of the world and is the One who can take away people’s spiritual blindness, we humans prefer to stay in the darkness.  We refuse to come to the Light.

1. Why do we refuse to come the Light?

Quite simply, because to do so means we have to admit that we are in darkness; that we cannot see; and that we are, therefore, unable to help ourselves.  It is an affront to our pride and our belief in our power and ability.  Jesus’ verdict on the Pharisees in the story is his verdict on us:

‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’ (John 9:41)

St John begins his account with the disciples asking Jesus, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’  It is a bit of a weird question.  We can understand how the man’s blindness could be blamed on his parents, even if it seems harsh and unfair to do so.  We get that, in theory at least, it could be a punishment on them for something they have done.  It could even be as a consequence of lifestyle choices they had made before he was born, which had resulted in a physical disability, but how can he himself be blamed for being born blind?

The disciples’ question reflects a belief that someone must be responsible for the man’s blindness.  The link between a person’s condition in life with sin is one with a long history.  We still make the link today, although we use different terminology in making it.

Attributing the negative state a person is in to some fault of their birth or to them personally was not only common in the ancient world, it is common in our own even if we prefer not to use the language of sin.

So, for example, a person’s economic and social disadvantages are often blamed on the culture, class, or country into which they are born.  This is the thinking of many on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum.  It follows, then, that if you change society and challenge unjust structures within it, you change people’s lives for the better.

On the other hand, many on the ‘right’ of the political spectrum think that the individual is always responsible for their own life, both for the good and the bad in it.  Here, the disciples take it to an extreme and think apparently that the man born blind might have done something wrong in the womb!

We see both narratives being played out in our world at the present, often at the same time.  So, there is the campaign for greater social justice and for the removal of barriers that are said to hold people back.  And then there is the ‘you can achieve anything you want if you believe in yourself’ message that we are constantly being urged to accept.

It is, of course, true that much of the trouble we get ourselves into is down to ourselves and our choices.  Actions have consequences, and we can be too quick to blame society or other people for what is our own fault and no-one else’s.

It is also true that many have little or no choice about the situation in life in which they find themselves.  Children born to abusive parents who neglect and maltreat them clearly will not have the advantages of those born to loving, caring parents who do all they can for them.  A child born to poor parents in the slums of Latin America, for example, will not have the same life chances as a child born to rich parents in Silicon Valley.

The reality, however, is that the predicament that the human race finds itself in is due to a far deeper and more sinister cause.  Yes, human life is diminished by the evil that traps them in injustice and exploits them.  Yes, we do wrong and need to take responsibility for our actions.  But all this is part of a far deeper problem.  St John describes this as being in darkness, and our problem is that we are all in darkness. 

The darkness, however, is more than just a state, it is also a force.  A force that expresses itself in social and economic structures that imprison and destroy people, and it reaches deep into the hearts and being of each one of us.  While, however, the darkness expresses itself in many different ways, it exists independently of them.  Earlier in his Gospel, John has made clear just how bad the situation we find ourselves in really is:

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

We are all spiritually blind, slaves to sin, and in the power of spiritual forces beyond our control.  We even prefer darkness to light.

2. What, then, is to be done?

If the disciple’s question, ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’ is a troubling one, then Jesus’ answer seems even more troubling.  Jesus answers their question:

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ (John 9:3)

Jesus appears to be saying that the man was selected and subjected to blindness so that God through Jesus could show how powerful he was.  The blind man is thus being used as a sort of visual aid – if you will forgive me for putting it that way!

Scholars who try to address this issue normally do so by appealing to Greek grammar to show that Jesus isn’t saying that God caused him to be born blind to reveal his work, but that God’s work is revealed in the man as a consequence of him being born blind.  God didn’t make the man blind to reveal his power, the man’s blindness made it possible for God to reveal his power in the man’s life by healing him.

I might not be personally responsible, for example, for someone having to beg on the street, but coming across a man begging gives me the opportunity to show how generous a person I am – or not, as the case may be!

Scholars who argue this way may or may not be right about the grammar, but we may be in danger of missing the point of what Jesus is saying to his disciples and of what, I think, he wants to say to us. 

When challenged by the Pharisees about how he gained his sight, the man born blind says:

‘Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.’ (John 9:32)

Again, it is true that the society where we are born and the family who we are born to affects both the person we are and the person we have the potential to become.  It is true, too, that we are responsible for our choices and decisions and the consequences of them.

But to put it plainly, it was only God who could do anything about the man’s blindness, and it is only God who can do anything about ours.

3. What does God do?

Jesus, having said that the man’s blindness will reveal God’s works, then does something very odd.  We know from the Gospels that Jesus has the power to heal and that he can do this simply by saying the word or by laying hands on the person needing healing.  Jesus can even heal over a distance when physically separated from the person needing healing as he did with the Centurion’s Son.

Instead here, Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud.  He then puts the mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash it off in the Pool of Siloam, which, St John tells us, means ‘Sent’.  So why the elaborate ritual?

Well, if you have been following these Broadcast Services and sermons during Lent, you will know the words that Lent begins with:

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

In the book of Genesis, man is created by God from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7).  Lent reminds us of both our fragility and mortality; something which, even at this time of crisis, we refuse to face up to.  The Rabbis spoke of how Adam was created from dust by God spitting on the ground and making him out the clay, out of the mud.

Two Sundays ago, for the Second Sunday of Lent, Jesus told Nicodemus, a Pharisee, that he must be ‘born again from above’.  (You can still listen to the service and sermon on YouTube!)  Nicodemus, however, simply doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t see it!

Here Jesus, in healing the man born blind gives a practical demonstration of what he said to Nicodemus by repeating the action of God at the creation of the first man.  The man born blind is not only given physical sight, he is brought to new birth and given spiritual sight.  For the story of the man born blind from birth doesn’t end with the man’s physical healing, but with him coming to faith in Christ and worshipping him.

What is also interesting in all this is the reaction of the Pharisees.  What they cannot understand or cope with is not that Jesus can heal, but that he chooses to do so on the Sabbath!

Here our prejudices blind us to the significance of what is going on.  We, again as I have said in recent sermons, see the Pharisees stereo-typically as the bad guys.  In many ways, however, they weren’t bad guys, and no-one at the time thought they were.  They were deeply committed to God and to doing what God wanted.

We need to remember that keeping the Sabbath wasn’t just about having a day off each week.  It wasn’t simply a day for people to enjoy themselves and do whatever they liked.  ‘Keeping the Sabbath holy’ was one of the 10 commandments from God alongside not murdering, committing adultery, stealing or lying.  If it was wrong to murder, it was wrong to work on the Sabbath.  Jesus healing on the Sabbath was the equivalent of a doctor opening his clinic on a Sunday.  The Pharisees weren’t against Jesus healing people, they just thought he should do it on another day.

We let our faith in ourselves get in the way of worshipping God.  The Pharisees let their faith in God get in the way of worshipping Jesus.  What they couldn’t see was that in Jesus, God was coming to them, and so he could decide what could or could not be done on the day of the week especially set aside for him.

The Pharisees, for good motives, sought to regulate the worship of God, and in the process became blind to the God they sought to worship.  It is a warning to us that both our desire to worship God and the rules we establish for his worship can themselves prevent us from seeing God.  We must throw aside all restrictions and allow God to open our eyes, so we can see him as he himself chooses to reveal himself to us in Christ.

Those who occupy positions of leadership and influence in the Church need to be very careful that the rules, regulations, and restrictions that they place on people, even when for the best of reasons, do not turn out to be the very things that prevent people coming to a place where, like the man born blind, they can see clearly to be able worship God in Christ.

Questioned by the Pharisees and asked whether he knew that the man who healed him was a sinner, the man born blind replied.

‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ (John 9:25)

Conclusion: ‘Come and See’.

Jesus first words in John’s Gospel were to Andrew and another disciple.  He asked them, ‘What are you looking for?’  They answered him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying.  Jesus replied, ‘Come and see’.  (John 1:38-39)  Last week, the woman at the well in Samaria said to the people of the place where she lived, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.’ (John 4:29)

Come and see!

Today, Jesus invites us to ‘Come and see’ so that with the man born blind, and countless others who have responded to his invitation, we too may worship Jesus and be able to say with confidence:

‘One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’

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