A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2020
Today’s gospel text is another long one from the Gospel of John—John 9:1-41. It’s the story of Jesus healing a man born blind and the reaction that the Pharisees have to that healing. Like last week, with the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, rather than read the text then give you a sermon, I think it will be a better use of our time together to take the text in pieces with commentary in between.
So first, a bit of background about the Gospel of John. John’s gospel is layered with symbolism and themes that repeat. One of those themes is light. We see this theme played out sometimes in subtle ways. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, in darkness. He’s afraid of being seen by his fellow Pharisees. Also, even though he is a religious teacher, he’s not very quick to pick up what Jesus is trying to teach. He’s in the dark. In contrast to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well meets Jesus in the broad light of day. She’s open and honest in her conversation. She doesn’t care who sees her talking with him. She is quick to discern that there is something unique about him and quick to invite others to “come and see.”
Light is also used in John specifically to describe Jesus as the light of creation, the light of the cosmos, the light of the world. For instance in John 1 in that beautiful, poetic prologue we read:
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [Another way to translate did not overcome it is has not understood it.]
Time and again in the Gospel of John religious leaders and authorities fail to understand Jesus. They’re standing in the presence of the light but they’re in the dark.
As the light of the world, Jesus does two things. First, he shines as the light of judgment. He, himself, becomes the standard that separates good from evil.
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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The second thing Jesus does as the light of the world is that he enables those who believe in him and who receive the Holy Spirit to see. Seeing is another theme in John’s gospel, and it’s only natural that it is so directly tied to Jesus as the light. But seeing as it is used in this gospel is not merely seeing as we do in everyday life, but seeing with a deeper insight and, more specifically, seeing the Reign or Sovereignty of God not just as a future promise, but as a present reality when Christ is present. To put it another way, when Jesus, the light of the world is with us, the Kingdom of God is with us, and we can see it! It’s happening now! But to see it and experience it, you need the presence of Christ and the presence of the Spirit which make you a new creation. As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3,
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
And then there is yet another way that seeing is used in this gospel, and that is to see others as Jesus sees them. Jesus sees and notices things and persons that others overlook or he sees them before others see them. And that is where today’s gospel begins. John, chapter 9, verse 1:
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
It’s Jesus that sees him first. And this is a man who is probably accustomed to being overlooked. He was a beggar. He was used to being ignored. But Jesus notices him. And because Jesus notices him, the disciples notice him, too.
2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Isn’t it interesting that for the disciples this man becomes not as person in need of assistance or even a person to simply get to know, but a fulcrum for theological debate. And isn’t it so very human to want to fix blame for things like this? Who sinned? Why did this happen? Who’s to blame? What went wrong? Clearly, in their thinking, he’s being punished by God, so why?
I’ve done a little, not retranslating, exactly, but I’ve changed the punctuation in the next part because there is no punctuation in the Greek text. The NRSV reads “3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” The words “he was born blind” are not in the Greek, so I’m not sure why the NRSV translators put them in there. And the implication of that translation is that God arranged for the man the man to be born blind so that Jesus could come along years later and fix him. But if you take out that phrase that’s not in the Greek and change the punctuation it reads very differently.
John 9:3-5 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Do you hear the difference? Jesus is saying, “Nobody sinned. He’s not being punished. His parents aren’t being punished. Stuff happens. Let’s stop wasting time with that nonsense and let’s get on with the work God sent us to do while we have time to do it! Daylight’s a wastin’! Night is coming! I’m here. I’m the light of the world. Let’s get rid of this little bit of darkness.”
6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
So the man was healed. His eyes were opened and he could see. That was his physical healing. But can you imagine how much his spirit, his heart, his soul were healed when he heard Jesus say, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Can you imagine what it meant to him to hear those words?
8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
Now here’s the thing. It’s not really a violation of the Sabbath laws to heal someone on the Sabbath even though Jesus repeatedly gets in hot water for doing so. It just feels like work the Pharisees, so they don’t like it. But in this particular instance they have something of a case. A little bit of one, because Jesus made a paste of mud, and that looks like kneading, as in kneading dough. And that, according to the Mishnah Shabbat is one of the 39 tasks forbidden on the Sabbath.
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
Isn’t it interesting what fear and anxiety does to people. Here are these parents who have seen their son healed, their son who has been blind his whole life, but they’re not celebrating. They’re not looking for Jesus so they can thank him. They’re nervous. They don’t want their status changed. They don’t want their lives changed. They don’t want to be put out of the synagogue. They don’t want to be noticed. They don’t want to be seen.
24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
I love how the Formerly Blind Man answers the Pharisees. Sometimes we think we have to figure out everything about God and what God is doing and be able to answer all the hard questions. He doesn’t fall into that trap. And he doesn’t let them control the dialogue. He just tells them what he does know. And I like to think that when he says, “Do you also want to become his disciples?” he is asking the question in earnest—an invitation to grace in the face of hostility.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
In the chapter before this story, in chapter 8 verse 12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
In this time of Corona virus and self-quarantine, it’s easy to feel like we’re all in the dark, like we’re all flying a little bit blind. But we have the light of life to help us see that God is still at work in the world and in our lives. So here’s mud in your eye—the kind that heals. May the light of Christ shine on you and in you and through you so that not only you can see, but so that others can see by the light that shines through you.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.