A sermon preached at Southminster
April 3, 2011
I love this story. But you know how it is with stories you love? Every so often you read it again and it says something that you didn’t notice the last time, or the last 243 times, that you read it.
One thing I noticed this time around is at the beginning, when Jesus is asked the question,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”, it is the disciples who ask the question. Doesn’t it seem like the kind of question his detractors would ask to trap him?
But it was asked by his friends.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
We assume that the disciples weren’t trying to trap him. Which means that they are trying to understand the world they encounter. They are trying to explain things that we can’t always explain.
Why was this man born blind but that man has perfect vision?
Why does a 4 year old get Leukemia?
Why do Tsunamis happen?
But Jesus doesn’t explain things.
For him, everything in the world is a sign that points to him, helping us see and hear him more clearly. In John’s gospel, there aren’t miracles as we have in the other gospels. There are signs. And the signs aren’t big deals on their own. Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes? Not much of a miracle. Spit. Mud. No, this story isn’t about the sign. It is about how the sign points to Jesus. Signs are events and actions that make our vision clearer and make our hearing sharper.
Unless they don’t.
For some people in this story, the signs don’t improve their vision. This sign, of the man born blind having his sight restored, doesn’t in any way, fit with the world they know and can explain. And as such, even though they are asking questions, they seem to be standing there like this: with their hands over their ears and their eyes closed, singing “la la la la la. Not listening!”
So it makes me wonder if we should be careful of only asking questions that try to explain away they mysteries of faith and the mysteries of life. Some people are blind. Some people happen to live in places where the earth shakes and the waters rise. Some people have more than their share of difficulty. Jesus doesn’t explain it.
And the formerly blind man doesn’t either. He’s not interested in speculation. They ask him, and they ask him again, about how he was healed.
How did it happen?
Who did this?
What do you say about him?
For the formerly blind man, it is the act of testifying about his experience that brings him to sight. Yes, Jesus restored his vision, but lots of people have functioning eyes. It was his repeated testimony that seems to move him to seeing who Jesus truly is. “Lord I believe”, he says to Jesus at the end of the story.
So, even when we really have no answers to the questions, we’re supposed to say what we know. And we need to expect the interrogation. Once you’ve encountered Jesus, your life is different. The crowd doesn’t even recognize the man when he first comes back with his sight. He has to keep telling them, “I am that guy”.
So then they ask him, ‘fine, if you’re the blind man, how can you see now?’
“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.”
He testifies to his experience. He doesn’t say that everyone needs to have the same experience he did. He doesn’t claim that his experience is more valid than someone else’s. He just says what he knows.
They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” (duh, I was blind, remember).
I wish the crowds had asked him, “What did the mud feel like when he put it on your face? What is it like to see? Is it what you thought it would be?”
Wouldn’t that be great, if instead of trying to make sense of everyone else’s experience, we could just enjoy it with them?
But instead they take him to the Pharisees, who sadly get blinded by the technicality of the sign. Jesus made mud on the Sabbath. The mud business doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, certainly not a hanging offense, but Pharaoh had the Israelites make mud into bricks, remember. Slavery in Egypt wasn’t such a great time for them. So there is value in their long memory. But no matter how useful and beneficial those rules had been at the beginning, once the religious leaders have quantified their faith experience into only rules and restrictions, they missed the opportunity to see God.
Our traditions are great and all. But we shouldn’t let them close our eyes to the presence of God in our midst.
Through the interrogation with the Pharisees, the formerly blind man doesn’t get sidetracked. He keeps telling them what his experience was. And, when pressed, he makes a claim about Jesus. “He is a prophet.” His awareness of Jesus seems to be getting clearer for him as it remains muddied for the religious officials.
So then they bring in his parents. Not the parents finest hour. “Is this your son? You say he was blind? How can he now see?”
“Umm…well, yes. He’s our son. I’m pretty sure that’s my son. We have no idea what’s going on. Why are you putting us in this uncomfortable situation? We didn’t do anything. Just ask him!”
Gee, thanks mom and dad.
But sometimes our families are the last people who can understand our experience of Jesus. Because they have raised us in their traditions. Why would our experience be different than theirs? But the man born blind doesn’t get derailed when his parents push him in front of the proverbial bus, handing him over to the authorities. He continues to speak of his experience and how the sign of Jesus’ healing helped him to see.
And he is quite impassioned in his own testimony.
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.
And then he’s driven out of his community. The neighbors, the religious authorities, and his own parents decide that they don’t want to trust the voice of the formerly blind man. They decide that their preconceptions about God are more important than the man’s experience of being healed by Jesus.
The story ends with some positive outcomes for the formerly blind man, more or less. He’s gained his sight. And Jesus comes and finds him and gives him the opportunity to make his confession of faith. “Do you believe in the son of man?”
“Lord, I believe”.
That’s all we can do. We can’t explain away the troubles of the world. We can’t explain away the mysteries of the faith. We can’t open other people’s eyes and turn their heads, saying “there he is. Jesus is right there. Look!”
All we can do, everything we should do, is testify to the light.
Now, I realize that in this story, testifying doesn’t seem like such a good deal. He loses many of his friends, church types, and family. He doesn’t appear to be “successful” at evangelizing because nobody “comes to Jesus”—whatever that means.
But here’s the good news. That’s not his job. Being successful at saving people isn’t what he is supposed to do. That’s what God does. He just testifies to what he’s seen. Presumably, Jesus didn’t heal the blind man because of his public speaking skills or his gifts for evangelism. Jesus healed him because he needed healing.
And so the man told his story.
“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
So we pray that the signs of healing and grace that we see around us in our lives won’t leave us blinded by the Light. Instead, I pray that we’ll be able to see and then share that experience with the world, trusting that it will point the way to Jesus so that his Light may shine in all of the dark corners of our world. Amen.