4th Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2020
By Peder Stenslile
Oh, how life has been altered since we last gathered! I began preparing a sermon for this Sunday many days ago clueless to how events would escalate the change and stress people are having to absorb into their lives. I’ve decided to redo the sermon in some way that might be helpful or relevant given what we are all facing in the world around us and the communities in which we live.
There is a lot of uncertainty in matters both small and great. Our physical and mental health, our daily routines, our relationships, our financial well-being… all of these things are being challenged to greater or lesser degrees by events we have little or no control over. Some people are bearing a greater burden than others. I think of June, Brad, and Amy, and others in this congregation, who have jobs that put them in the front line of our struggle to manage this threat especially as it looms over vulnerable people in our society. We must especially remember these people in our prayers at this time.
In the midst of this unsettling time, it is good for us to turn to scripture to hear God’s promise to be with us in the darkness. It is good for us to hear about the gifts of grace, strength, and faith given to those who walk through troubled waters.
Today’s long Gospel reading from John (9:1-41) is a remarkable treasure of the church. John tells this story brilliantly, throwing in delightful comedic elements and packing it with a powerful message. I want to break it up in segments and comment a bit on each segment.
I love the inspiration and hope that the hymns of the church can give us, written often by people who faced their own trials and their own darkness but found strength and grace in Christ. I will therefore also include references to 4 hymns I believe can speak to us in this time.
John 9:1-7. As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works 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.’ 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, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The story begins when Jesus and his disciples see a blind beggar. We learn that the man was blind from birth. This was a brutal fate in Jesus’ time. They didn’t have any kind of social welfare system to care for people such as this man. For such people it was a desperate life of begging, social isolation, and surely an early death. The disciples see the man in his trouble, and they are clearly bothered by it. They want some kind of answer from Jesus. “Why is this man suffering like this?”
The way they phrase the questions reveals how people generally understood suffering then. It was seen as punishment for something. The disciples want to know whose sin caused the man’s suffering. “Was it his parents or the man himself?” They don’t ask if sin caused the man’s trouble. They want to know whose sin caused the man’s trouble.
Jesus dismisses that view of suffering and points to the power of God that can transform suffering and bring healing and new life out of affliction.
It’s also important to note that the blind man does not approach Jesus and ask for healing; and he doesn’t present Jesus with faith that is then rewarded with healing. He is a man held in physical darkness and social bondage by his affliction. He hasn’t a clue about the hope and power that is in his midst. It is God’s love and mercy that awakens in his life (and delivers) the possibility of healing and new life.
In this story, and in the season of Lent, we remember that we too are held in bondage to weakness and affliction. In this season of Coronavirus, we feel that bondage in the isolation we are forced to accept and in the powerlessness that we acknowledge before an illness we can neither understand nor cure. We realize that it isn’t just our physical well-being that is threatened, but our spiritual as well. In the midst of darkness, we feel despair lurking not far away. We wonder: “Can we find hope and strength to be the people God has called us to be?”
In our red hymnal (ELW), hymn #715 is Christ Be Our Light. The words to this hymn remind us how we — like the blind man — live in darkness. “Longing for peace, our world is troubled. Longing for hope, many despair. Your word alone has power to save us. Make us your living voice. Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness.” We ask Christ to make us a part of his light in a troubled and dark world.
John 9:8-12. 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?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 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.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
The act of Jesus healing this beggar who was blind from birth sends shock waves through the city. A series of interrogations follow. In fact, the interrogations make up nearly all of this reading. It begins with the man’s acquaintances and neighbors. They know the man, but they just can’t wrap their heads around what has happened. So they debate among themselves and question the man relentlessly. What has happened is so impossible to comprehend that some of the neighbors argue that it must be someone who simply looks like the blind beggar they know. All the while, the man repeatedly explains, “I am the man.”
He recounts in detail what Jesus said and did. They ask where the man who did this is? The man doesn’t know.
Physical and social healing are God’s gifts to this man, and these things will certainly utterly transform his life. And it is very important to remember that such goodness is God’s will for us; that we be freed from all bondage so that we can joyfully participate in the life of our community. But even deeper waters than physical and social healing are stirred here as we shall soon see.
John 9:13-17. They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 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.’ 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. 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.’
In ancient Palestine, you knew your situation just got real when the Pharisees got involved. The Pharisees take the lead in the next round of interrogations. The tone of this interrogation is rather mixed. The Pharisees seem unsure of what to make of these strange events. They appear to accept the fact of the healing and seem curious to learn what has happened. Among them, opinion is divided.
In a very rare and curious moment, the Pharisees ask for the man’s opinion about what happened. And it is here that we see that deeper waters have been stirred in the man. He responds definitively: “He is a prophet.” That is his way of saying that he believes the power of God is with Jesus. We know that the man was relieved of his blindness, and therefore restored to active life in his community; but now we understand that there is something beyond physical sight that is awakening in the man. This is the deeper gift that Christ came to give… eyes that can see the Kingdom of God… minds that understand the truth of God… hearts that open to the will of God… and bodies that are willing to do the work of God.
The hymn Amazing Grace. (ELW #779) is a great treasure of the church. The author, John Newton, was a former slave trader who lived in the 1700s. In the hymn, he gives thanks for these deeper gifts that led him out of darkness, that set him free from blindness and wretchedness to know and live in love, grace, and hope.
Verse 1: Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.
Verse 4: The Lord has promised good to me; his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
John 9:18-23. 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 and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 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.’ 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. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
We see that the Pharisees clearly cannot accept the man’s answer. In fact, it has served to harden their position. What they now “see” is that the man’s conclusion is a threat to their authority. They are now fully committed to discrediting the miracle; and they must figure out how. They call the man’s parents and interrogate them. The parents completely understand what’s going on. They understand the intentions of the powerful Pharisees and fear falling into their disfavor. They know the Pharisees hold the key to their continued acceptance in the community, even to their place in the synagogue… the place of worship.
They want nothing to do with this. They simply deflect back to their son, saying, “He is of age; ask him.” In the face of the threatening Pharisees, the parents dare not risk anything. They leave their son to face the Pharisees alone. Living in the face of threat, it’s easy to collapse or hide away. It’s much harder to stand firm in the hope to which we have been called.
John 9:24-34. 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.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 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?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 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.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
The powerful Pharisees call the man before them again. This time, the tone is completely different. To begin with, they are not interested in gaining information anymore but setting the record straight. They begin by simply telling the man how it is: “We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” They expect the man to accept this premise because they are clearly the relevant authorities in this matter; but the man won’t. The man has discovered conviction and courage. He finds strength to resist. Therefore, the Pharisees seek to trick him or trap him. They seek to overwhelm the man with clever intellectual arguments and with the sheer weight of their authority. They seek to frighten the man with their power to convict him of wrongdoing and cast him out of the community… essentially, back to the social darkness in which he has spent his whole life. That is quite a threat; and yet the man holds on to what he has come to know in Christ: that the power of God has touched him. It is with him and strengthens him; therefore, he need not fear the Pharisees.
The beautiful hymn “Be Thou My Vision” (ELW #793) echoes this realization that God is with us to strengthen, teach, and guide us in the many beautiful names the hymn uses for God present with us: “Lord of my heart,” “light of my soul,” “my soul’s shelter,” “my best thought,” “my high tower,” “power of my power.”
We know we live in a world full of trouble, danger, and grief. The man born blind, spent nearly his whole life in this kind of darkness. Then, as soon as he found healing, he landed in trouble with the most powerful people of his community. As Christians, we accept that trouble is all around us, but we remember that God has promised to be with us. Like the man born blind, we can trust in his love, his grace, and his strength and face the dangers around us with courage and hope.
John 9:35-41. Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
In ancient times, this text was connected to the sacrament of baptism. At first, this might seem strange, but the story of the man who was blind from birth was seen as instructive for people preparing for a lifelong relationship with Christ. It demonstrates the mystery of the formation of faith… how Christ brings sight out of blindness. It also shows how the power of God increases faith in times of trouble and strengthens one to face life’s trials.
In the last segment of the story, Jesus has a final encounter with both the man and the Pharisees. After the man was driven out by the Pharisees, like a good shepherd, Jesus went to find him. In their conversation, we see that the man who was blind from birth has fully answered the deeper call that was present in his healing. He has opened his heart to the Living Waters, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World. He knows that he belongs to God. He has found his life center… his soul’s shelter, his high tower, the power of his power. This changes everything for the man.
Jesus says that he has come into this world so that we may see. This truth of the Christian faith (and the truth of the story of the man born blind) is expressed beautifully in the final verse of hymn #332: I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s light. Look unto me, your morn shall rise, and all your day be bright.” I looked to Jesus, and I found in him my star, my sun. And in that light of life I’ll walk till travelling days are done.
We all face an uncertain future. Now more than ever it is important that we let God speak to us; and we let Christ’s light guide us. Let us be faithful and take time to pray for one another. Let us take care to ask God for strength and courage, trust in the promise of his presence, and know that whatever befalls us or the ones we love, we belong to God. Amen.