A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2018
For Jesus in John’s gospel, 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 ingredients of 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!”
What do we see when we look? That’s the question for John.
Watch this video. Count the passes the team in white makes.
How do we make sure we don’t only see what we’re already looking for?
This story suggests clear vision doesn’t come from being fixated on the HOW or WHY questions that try to quantify, explain away, or control the mystery of faith. Some people are born blind. Others are born with perfect sight.
In the world we live in, some people, not because of any bad decision or choice of theirs, have more than their share of difficulty.
Jesus doesn’t blame the blind man for his misfortune. Jesus also doesn’t praise people for misfortune, as if they are somehow more worthy of God’s love because of it.
Jesus doesn’t explain it all.
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 other people’s 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 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?
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 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 can 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.
“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
Seems like a simple statement to cause such disruption, doesn’t it?
Change, as we know, is a 4 letter word. And when the change is at opposition to the people in power, expect trouble.
It also reveals the sad truth that the working of Jesus, and the truth of the gospel is often at odds with the people in power. I’m not speaking of one political leader, or one political party, although y’all know I have some opinions. I’m speaking of the way power is often self promoting and self protecting, and not gospel promoting.
The man born blind exposed the self protecting nature of his religious tradition. And he lost his church. His family. His friends.
Are you willing to lose your community, maybe even your family, to testify to what you know? To speak your truth?
If you’ve been following the news about Larry Nassar’s abuse trial, the judge has allowed 150 young women and girls whom he abused to testify, to tell Nassar the cost they have paid for his sin. I’m grateful for this judge, and the way she has given these young women a chance to testify to their experience.
The last woman to testify was the first woman to come forward to publicly testify about the abuse she endured 18 years ago as a young gymnast. She did not know there were other victims at the time she spoke. By speaking to her experience, other women found strength to share their stories too. She has since gone on to advocate for other women who have been victims of abuse, and once she started speaking up for victims of clergy abuse, she too, lost her community. Rachel Denhollander’s statement is a theological treatise on justice, repentance, forgiveness, and how Jesus stands against such evil. Here’s a part of what she said to Christianity Today recently:
First, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.
Second, that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.
Are we willing to testify to the truth when we’ve seen it?
In this passage, Jesus declares he is the light of the world. I’m grateful for people who are willing to speak of their experience, shedding light into dark corners, bringing the light of the world to the shadows of injustice. When we testify to our experience, the light of the world exposes power that would protect itself at the expense of others. When we testify to our experience, the light of the world gives hope to others.
There are lots of signs in the world. Signs that are big displays and parades to the egos of people. Signs that shine like neon, pointing us toward ways to consume more and spend our money. Notice what the signs point toward. The healing of the man born blind is a sign that points to Jesus. The testimony of the man born blind is also a sign that points to Jesus. May we all have eyes to see, so the light of the world will bring light to our darkness.