Though I Was Blind, Now I See

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Very many want to believe that through religion, we can gain some kind of ultimate knowledge about life and God that gives us control over life.  But we can’t.  According to scripture, what we are meant to gain through faith are the promises and gifts of God that give us hope and help us live as simple, but compassionate and strong people of God (strong like the blind beggar).  To understand that is what it means to see.

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014
John 9:1-41
Peder Stenslie

If you’ve looked in your bulletin today, you probably noticed that the Gospel reading is a monster… an entire chapter of the book of John.  Rather than read the whole thing and preach, I’m going to take it in pieces and work my way through it.  Here’s how it begins:

1As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

When I was about 20, and I’d get into intense conversatons with friends about life, faith and religion, I really wanted to have answers to the difficult questions that came up.  Given my lifelong belief in Jesus and involvement in the Christian faith, it seemed like I should be able to give some concrete answers to these questions.

Over time, however, I gradually realized that there’s a whole lot of things about scripture and God and life that I just don’t know, don’t understand.  To pretend that I do know when I don’t is a terrible thing… especially in matters of religion.

Humility and honesty are the beginning of all good religion.

Today’s Gospel lesson — rather comically — makes precisely that point.  Jesus heals a man who had been blind since birth.  This creates quite a stir among his neighbors.  Listen to their reaction as I read the next section of the Gospel.

8The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ 10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He 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.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

In the wake of this healing — when people see this formerly blind man, going around with sight — they begin questioning and debating among themselves whether this man is really the man they know who was blind from birth.  “Yes it is,” some say.  “No it is not,” others say.  “It is just a man who looks like that man.”

All the while they are going on like this, the man himself says repeatedly, “I am the man.  I am the man.”

Still they doubt him.  “Then how were your eyes opened?” They ask.  Wasting no words, adding no dramatic flair, he tells them:  “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.”

Still unable to believe, they ask where this man called Jesus is now.  “I do not know,” the man answers.

Finally — because they don’t know what else to do, they take the man to the Pharisees.  They’ll know what to do.  They know everything.

14 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 13Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then 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.’ 16Some 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. 17So 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.’

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 19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but 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.’ 22His 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. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

Now it’s the pharisees’ turn to grill the man.  They ask him the same questions as his neighbors and he gives the same answers.  The pharisees debate among themselves what this could mean.  Who could this Jesus be?

Clearly he can’t be from God because, in their mind, he doesn’t fit the right profile.  Reality is in conflict with what they believe they know about life and God.

Finally, someone turns to the man and asks:  “What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”

The man, who has just gone from being blind since birth to having full sight, doesn’t overstate what he knows.  He simply says, “He is a prophet,” which is to say… he is sent from God.

This idea they cannot accept, and so the whole conversation goes all the way back to the beginning.  They begin to debate again whether the man before them is really the same man who was blind from birth.  The question is not put to rest until the man’s parents are brought forth.  “Yeah, he’s our son,” they say.  So they ask the parents how he came to see.  They are intimidated by the crowd and the authority of the pharisees and want no part of this trouble; so they just say, “He is of age.  Ask him.”

So they call the man forward again; and here’s how it goes:

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.’ 25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He 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?’ 28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Now the Pharisees are pushing a clear agenda.  They want the man to deny that Jesus healed him.  Their ideas about God and religion are more important to them than truth.  They declare Jesus a sinner and threaten and belittle the man to get him to change his story.  They are demanding that he make truth as foggy and twisted and turned inside out as they have made it.

But the man sticks with what he knows.  His response is simple, direct and honest:  “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The pharisees, however, won’t quit.  They are determined to make this man’s experience and this man’s public statements conform to their belief.  So they jump back again to where they have already been.  “What did he do to you?  How did he open your eyes?”

By this time, the man is getting exasperated… and feisty:  “I have told you already, and you would not listen.  Why do you want to hear it again?”  and to that he adds a sarcastic afterthought:  “Do you also want to become his disciple?”

This really angers the pharisees who — the text says — begin to revile the man.  “You may be a disciple of this sinner.  We are disciples of Moses.  We know where Moses comes from.  Who knows where this man comes from?”

By now, an amazing thing has happened.  Rather than having clouded this man’s vision, this conflict with the pharisees has sharpened it.  He refuses to depart from the simple facts he knows.

The bullying pharisees have, in fact, pushed this courageously honest man to certainty.  He knows Jesus is from God.  Only someone from God could heal and restore life like that.  The pharisees, with all their knowledge and authority, cannot cancel that fact.  That they try is proof that they are fools.

At this point, the man realizes that, in spite of their claims and positions of authority, these pharisees know less than he does… and he says as much.

The pharisees become enraged that a “lowlife”– a man who had been blind and a beggar his whole life — should try to “teach” them.  “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”  And finally they drive him off.

As the man leaves their presence, the pharisees are just as lost and clueless as they were before the whole ordeal began.  However, thanks to their crazy mental gymnastics, they manage to hang on to the illusion that they know what they’re talking about.

The man, on the other hand, by the power of his own simple honesty, is ready to enter into a deeper relationship with Christ.  A relationship of faith and trust.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus 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.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

We human creatures are, by nature, ignorant about the mysteries of life and God.  We just don’t have the answers to the big questions of existence (though we would like to).  In that sense, we live blind.  That is not good or bad, it just is.  It is part of what it means to be a human.  But we seem to be driven by our nature to deny that fact.  And that is bad.

Very many want to believe that through religion, we can gain some kind of ultimate knowledge about life and God that gives us control over life.  But we can’t.  According to scripture, what we are meant to gain through faith are the promises and gifts of God that give us hope and help us live as simple, but compassionate and strong people of God (strong like the blind beggar).  To understand that is what it means to see.

In our lives as Christians, we sometimes feel that admitting to ourselves or to others that we don’t know or don’t understand shows a lack or weakness of faith.  Sometimes others make us feel that way.

Such thoughts tap into the deep insecurities of our human nature and they often motivate us to live and think and speak dishonestly, like the pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson.

But what our human nature sees as a weakness, is in fact, a great strength, on which a true faith relationship with God can finally be built.

Honesty, humility, admitting our limits and our weakness…  That is true strength, because it is allows a human being to finally be what it was created be — a creature who lives not by pretend knowledge, but by faith in its creator.

God waits for us (and prods us) to empty ourselves of our desire to know more than we can and to be more than we are, so that our relationship with him might deepen and grow, so that, by his spirit he might teach us how to live… simply and honestly, but filled with his strength and love.