EYESIGHT TO THE BLIND (OR NOT…)

A sermon on John 9:1-41

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

March 22, 2020

By Paul Dakin:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen. It seems like it happens most every time that a national crisis arises. And it is happening once again now that we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is my observation that, whenever some kind of national emergency or a devastating natural disaster occurs, there will be some religious figure somewhere who will get on the media to loudly proclaim that the situation is none other than Divine Judgment visited upon our country. And usually, this preacher will enumerate some of the sins of the nation which he contends are responsible for God’s anger. Here are a couple of fairly recent examples that you may remember to illustrate what I mean… When awareness of AIDS first became a major concern in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, a number of preachers were quick to publically label the disease as God’s judgment on the homosexual community. It was said that this was a plague that God was sending on our nation in order to punish the gay community for their sin—and for the rest of the country’s complicity in it. Such preaching went on that way for a while. But after a few years, that argument lost its power and receded into the background once AIDS began to infect the heterosexual population as well. Make no mistake about it: The scourge of AIDS is still with us—and it is particularly virulent in Africa. But preachers don’t preach sermons about AIDS being God’s judgment on gay people much anymore… Another one that you might remember… In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, several nationally-known preachers were quick to take to the airwaves to label the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as God’s judgment on America due to our lax morals. It seemed to them that the attacks were punishment for our nation straying from God’s ways and that America needed to repent. It is interesting to me that, eighteen years later, no one much blames 9/11 on America’s sins anymore. I wonder what changed… A few years later, the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to the city of New Orleans was deemed by some to be punishment visited upon the city for its abundant and well-known reputation for sin. As far as some preachers were concerned, God was “cleaning house,” so to speak. In that respect, I guess they figured that it was not too different from what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah back in the book of Genesis as a punishment for their flagrant sin. More than a decade later after Katrina, we do not hear much preaching about that anymore either… And so today…To no one’s surprise, there are those who are proclaiming the coronavirus pandemic as the latest plague sent from Almighty God to punish our sins. One of the loudest voices is a minister named Rick Wiles. Have you heard him? Rick Wiles is the pastor of the Flowing Streams Church, P a g e | 2 a nondenominational congregation in Vero Beach, Florida. Early on when the coronavirus started making news, Wiles went on the media to make this proclamation: Plagues are one of the last steps of judgment…Look at the spiritual rebellion that is in this country, the hatred of God, the hatred of the Bible, the hatred of righteousness. Just vile, disgusting people in this country now… Look at the rapes, and the sexual immorality, and the filth on our TVs and our movies. Folks, the Death-Angel may be moving right now across the planet. This is the time to get right with God. My spirit bears witness that this is a genuine plague that’s coming upon the Earth. And God is about to purge a lot of sin off this planet…1 All I can say is, “Wow…just Wow…” [Side bar here: One thing that I find fascinating about these kinds of proclamations is that the sins listed are almost always something that has to do with sexuality. Have you noticed that too? If I am reading the Bible correctly, God brought judgment on Israel for lots of different sins. Sexual sins were often named as only one of the reasons. And truth be told, sexual sins were almost never the main reason… Instead, God’s judgment—more often than not in my observation—fell upon Israel for sins like these: treating people unfairly, perverting the justice system, worshiping other gods instead of the one true God, and refusing to care for the poor and those on the margins of society. For instance, the message delivered by the prophet Amos is an excellent example of what I mean. In pronouncing God’s coming judgment, Amos writes: “You turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground…You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain…You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts… [You sell wheat] skimping the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales; [you are] buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals…” (Amos 5: 7, 11-12; 8:5-6) In listing America’s transgressions, present-day preachers of judgment seldom—if ever—mention those kinds of sins. But the scriptures teach that those kinds of sins are of no less importance to God. 2 And I do not think that America is any less guilty of them as was Israel when Amos spoke those words in the 8th Century BC…Just sayin’…] Today’s gospel text is the story of Jesus healing a man that had been born blind. And it begins with a theological discussion of why this thing had happened to him and what the meaning of it is… The story begins as Jesus and his disciples are walking on the road to Jerusalem. And as they walk, they encounter a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road. The disciples take note of the man. But look what happens. They do not seem to have any compassion on him at all. Instead of offering to help the man or even to drop a few coins into his cup, the disciples turn to ask Jesus a question. It seems 1 www.newsweek.com/christian-pastor-claims-coronavirus-gods-death-angel-blames-parents-transgendering-little-1484473 (Accessed March 16, 2020) 2 See Amos 2:7-8 as one instance of sexual sin being listed as a cause for coming judgment. P a g e | 3 to me to be a rather odd question at that. It surely wouldn’t be the first thing that would pop into my mind in such a situation—what about you? The disciples ask the Lord, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The idea that the penalty of sins could be passed down from one generation to the next was not new. Nor was it without a Biblical basis. It was an idea that can be found in the Old Testament law. Exodus 20 is one of the passages that lines out the Ten Commandments. Verse 5 expands on the commandment to “not have any other gods before me.” In that verse, God says, “You shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.” (I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, that verse is kind of scary. I have heard some unsavory stories about some of the skeletons in my family’s closet going back a few generations. I’m glad that those sins are not being held against me or my boys…!) And then in Exodus 34, the story is told of the Lord visiting Moses on the mountaintop. And in that experience, God says, “I, the Lord, am compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. I do not leave the guilty unpunished. Yet I punish the children and their children’s children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Verses 6-7) So the idea was current in Jesus’ day that troubles were a direct result of sin, and that the punishment for sin could be visited upon descendents for generations afterward. Jesus calls out that notion and exposes it for the fallacy that it is. He answers his disciples in verse three: “Neither this man or his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” One of the most remarkable things that becomes evident as one reads the gospels is that Jesus was a puzzle to those who heard him speak and saw his miracles. Time and time again, the people of Jesus’ day exclaimed, “We’ve never heard anyone talking like this,” and they didn’t just mean the tone of his voice or his skillful public speaking. The reason is this: throughout his short public career, Jesus spoke and acted like he as if he was in charge. He did and said things that people didn’t think that you were allowed to do or say. And he explained them by saying that he had the right to do them. He behaved as if he had the right, and even the duty, to take over, to sort things out, to make his country, and even the wider world a different place. And it wasn’t very long before his followers understood that he really was in charge…3 This is one of those situations in which Jesus clearly acted and spoke as if he were in charge. He proved himself to be utterly in charge of the situation. First he corrected the beliefs about sin that his disciples had brought to him. Then he made some mud, spread it on the blind man’s eyes, and told him 3 I am indebted to N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2011), 11 for much of the material in this paragraph. P a g e | 4 to wash it off in the pool of Siloam. (This was a fountain located near the Temple in Jerusalem.) And when the man did this, he was able to see for the first time ever… It would have been a remarkable story if it had stopped right there. A man who was born blind who was seeing for the very first time would have been extraordinary on its own. And yet, John goes on to tell us about the fallout which accompanied the miracle. When his neighbors saw him after the miracle, some were amazed while others were not so sure that it really was the same guy. Unable to satisfy themselves with his explanation, his neighbors take to see the Pharisees. That is another thing that strikes me as kind of odd. What would the Pharisees have to add to the discussion? Sure—they were highly respected religious leaders, but that did not make them any more qualified to comment on a physical healing than anyone else. They interrogated the man and they could not resolve anything. About the only thing that they could do was condemn Jesus because he had healed the man born blind on the Sabbath. So, in hopes of debunking this “alleged” miracle, the Pharisees called the man’s parents in and questioned them. They didn’t get any further with them then they did with the man. So they decided to call the once-blind man back in for further questioning. This time, the exchange was much more heated. The man told them that he had already told them the whole story the first time. He asked them why they needed to hear it a second time. Then we get to verse 30. I love the man’s response to the Pharisees’ continued badgering about who had healed him. The Pharisees say that they know that God had spoken to Moses, but they could not tell where Jesus had come from. The formerly blind man responds with a remark that I imagine is tinged with more than a little bit of sarcasm. (I so wish somebody could have recorded the exchange on their cell phone…it would have been really entertaining to hear!) He says, “Here is an astonishing thing! God listens to those who worship and obey him. Here is a miracle the likes of which has never been heard of before in the history of the world. And yet you cannot say for certain if the one who is responsible for my healing is from God or not.” The Pharisees are enraged by his impertinence. And so, in response, they run him out—probably not too gently—of the synagogue. John 9 is more than just another story of Jesus performing a miracle. The emphasis of the passage has mostly to do with what it means to see…who sees and who doesn’t see…and what it means to understand. In Matthew 13, it is told of those who heard Jesus speak, “This people’s hearts have become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts.” John 9 ends with Jesus speaking of those who are spiritually blind. In verse 39, Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and that those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees got the import of what our lord was saying and replied, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”… P a g e | 5 Of all the people that Jesus encountered in the gospels, it is the Pharisees who should have been among the first ones to recognize that he was the Son of God. After all, they were ones who knew the Old Testament scriptures backwards and forwards. They were the ones who had devoted themselves to scrupulously following the Law of Moses and obeying all of God’s commands as best as they knew how. They were the ones who had intently studied the prophetic writings that described the work of the coming Messiah. They had been the ones who had been the keepers of the faith—preserving the Jewish religion and practices through five long centuries of foreign domination and influence. They were the most religious, godly people of Jesus’ time. No question about it. And yet the Pharisees did not see Jesus for who he was. There’s no other way to put it. They could not recognize God’s truth when it was standing right in front of them. For all their religiousness…and all of their devotion to God…they were blind to spiritual realities… And I think that is the point of today’s lesson. Sometimes it is some of the most religious of folks who are the ones who are the most spiritually blind. We serve a God who is not confined within the pages of a book. We serve a God who is not beholden to whatever our thoughts are of what he may or may not be or do. God is God. And the God we serve is an active, living, breathing Presence. God is in the business of defying expectations and doing what is least predictable in order to accomplish his will. And that principle is best illustrated by the cross of Jesus. Whatever else the cross may have been, no one expected the son of God to be nailed to one in shame and disgrace. But the cross was not a defeat. God turned the desperate tragedy of the cross into something great—the way of our salvation. And it was his love and his grace that made it so. But the most religious people of Jesus’ day just could not see it. Two thousand years later, it is a warning to those of us who have walked with the Lord for a long time. Not to take God for granted…or to think that we will always know what God is up to. That it is imperative that we be open to the Spirit of God leading in our lives as we follow the ways of Jesus. Otherwise, we might find ourselves asking the same question along with the Pharisees, “Surely we’re not blind…are we?”… To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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