a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent on John 9:1-41
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 3, 2011
Sometimes Jesus is just weird. He spent forty days in the wilderness, after all, to get ready for a ministry of three years among the people of Galilee. He felt it important to start out that ministry with a visit to an itinerant preacher who hung out near a muddy stream and “washed” people there. And as he continued his work, he often spoke in strange parables that made little sense to anyone until he explained their meaning and purpose.
In our story today from the gospel according to John, Jesus embodies his weirdness in all its fullness. As he walks along the road with his disciples on the Sabbath, they discover a man who had been born blind. The disciples ask him one of those tough questions that every pastor dreads: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” As he responds about the origin of this man’s sufferings, Jesus gets weird: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus continues with a strange and unprovoked philosophical declaration of who he is and what he is doing, but then things take one final unexpected, weird turn. Jesus bends down, spits into the dirt along the road to make a little mud, and without asking permission rubs the mud into the blind man’s eyes. He then instructs him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and afterward the man is able to see.
The rest of the long reading we heard this morning is all about what happens after this strange miracle – the puzzled response of the man born blind who can finally see the world in which he lives, the leering response of the Pharisees to this strange healer and his powers that seem to be free from any Sabbath regulations, the questioning of the blind man, not Jesus, as some leaders in the community wonder whether he had actually been born blind, the unexpected transformation of the man born blind as he experience Jesus’ power for himself and gradually turns to follow him as well, and Jesus’ final declaration that the real blindness here was not in the one who had been healed but in those who could not see the power of God working in this time and place.
Throughout it all, the blind man is confused and hurt and bewildered by everything happening around him, but he maintains one simple thing: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He doesn’t understand it, he can’t pinpoint how it happened, and people just won’t believe him – but somehow he is finally able to see the things around him and gradually becomes able to see that God had done this work in and through him.
But in the midst of all these strange things and this one important claim, I just can’t let go of how weird Jesus seems – his strange response to the questions asked of him, his healing of someone who didn’t ask for it, and especially this strange mix of saliva and dirt that somehow mixed with the water of Siloam to become a miraculous healing balm for this man born blind. Part of this surely stems from the reality that Jesus worked and lived in a world very different from our own. The healing arts of Jesus’ time were not rooted in medical knowledge like our own but rather in a strange mix of the supernatural and the traditional. The now-obvious recognition that sharing bodily fluids like saliva can transmit sickness and disease was not something that was understood in Jesus’ time. The simple assumption that sin of some sort, from some source, was responsible for all illness was rarely doubted or even questioned. And the recognition that sight is something we all can lose even if our vision tests at 20/20 doesn’t seem to make sense in our world today where even a computer can seemingly see so many things.
But throughout this story, Jesus’ greatest weirdness comes through when he insists that the worldview of his time – and of ours too – leaves something out. When his disciples ask him who sinned in order to make this man blind, he proposes an interesting new way, that sin was not responsible but rather that God was so that God would be glorified in his healing. It’s an astounding idea, that God makes people suffer in order to be glorified, and I don’t think it can go unquestioned, even though Jesus himself utters it. Some might explain away this suffering by saying that the man born blind didn’t suffer since he never knew what it was like to see, but that’s a copout if you ask me – God certainly gives us eyes for a reason, and when they do not work as God intends, we certainly suffer. Others have argued over the centuries that God’s providence is responsible for everything, good and bad, suffering and joy, and we certainly hear echoes of this in our own day too. Between our everyday thank-yous to God for providing a good parking place and the too-common assertion that bad things that happen in our lives and in our world are simply a part of “God’s plan,” we put a lot of emphasis on what God provides us, and if we do it well in the framework that Jesus provides here, it potentially provides glory to God.
But some in our day have taken this perspective to its logical end and pointed to God’s providence and glory as the explanation for nearly everything that happens in our world. I’m not speaking of the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of our world who blame natural disaster on human sin – that’s actually the perspective Jesus explicitly denies here! – but rather of some of those quieter voices who imply that God sends disaster to open new mission fields. Yes, in recent weeks, some have actually suggested that God sent the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster upon Japan so that the church can show off its care for people there and bring them to believe. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would be compelled to believe in a God who sent a disaster that killed my neighbors, friends, and even family so that I can see what he is up to. But thankfully that’s not at all what Jesus says here – he simply makes it clear that in this specific individual, in this particular healing, God’s work of healing providence was made clear. This story can’t explain how and why everything happens, and God’s glory is not the reason for every child born blind, but here, in this time and this place, Jesus invites us to see more than meets the eye and watch as God breaks through our expectations to do the unexpected.
At the core, that’s the real weirdness that Jesus gets at here, not so much the healing without permission, not his strange and evasive answers about who did or did not sin here, not even the dirt and saliva that he uses to make the healing happen. The real weirdness here is that Jesus calls us to put aside our assumptions about how things happen, to set aside the ways that everything has worked before, to stop trying to see as we have always seen before, for the reality is that we have been, are now, and will forever be blind if we keep trying to see as we have always seen. Even the man born blind who suddenly was able to see has to keep working through things two and three times to sort out the new reality of his sight, but eventually the power of his simple transformation story overcomes all the questions as blindness fades into sight and confusion becomes understanding.
Jesus’ strange new worldview challenges us to look at things anew, to pay attention to what is really going on around us, to make sure that we aren’t just seeing what we have seen before or what we want to see now, and then to respond, recognizing where God is at work and stepping in ourselves to work where work is still needed. Jesus casts aside the way we have always thought things should be and insists that there is more than meets the eye here, that we need to think anew about how can be and should live together in our changing world. We can’t just assume that every problem can be attributed to our own actions or the actions of others, and God doesn’t set us up to fail or face suffering, yet somehow God still puts these things before us – the struggles that make us who we are, the strange and different things that are inherent in our birth, maybe blindness, deafness, shortness, red-headed-ness, baldness, left-handed-ness, gayness – these things that the world too often discounts and that make our lives hard – and yet God insists they can show God’s glory.
There is more than meets the eye in these things and in everything that God gifts us in the fullness of our humanity. We may not immediately understand it, we may not always see it right away, we may certainly be angered and frustrated by our different reality, but we nonetheless can trust that God can and will use everything about us for the fullness of God’s glory. So may God open our eyes to see God’s glory in all the strange and wonderful things around us in these days – and inspire us to respond to this new and different and wonderful and weird world with new hope and life now and always. Lord, come quickly! Amen.