Sunday, March 30, 2014

Now I See

John 9:1-41
March 30, 2014

            In the movie Contact, Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway.  She is an intense scientist who puts all of her belief and her trust in science and mathematics.  Her work is looking for extraterrestrial life.  So she listens to space.  She hears something.  She recognizes a mathematical pattern being transmitted from the star Vega.  Without going into long detail, in the message are instructions for a one person pod-like vessel, a space ship.  Arroway finally gets her chance to pilot the vessel into space.  She has recording equipment with her and readies herself for her flight.  She does travel, through space, worm holes, and makes contact with another being.  From her perspective, she spent hours, days making this journey.  But her pod never leaves its launch pad.  All her recording equipment captured was static. 
            As you can imagine, this kind of scientific exploration didn’t occur outside of the political realm.  Arroway remains steadfast in her claim that she made a journey unlike any other.  She is called to testify before congress.  Her story is dismissed and derided, but she makes a powerful statement about what she experienced.  She couldn’t prove anything to them.  She could give them no evidence of what happened to her, but what she saw changed her forever.  This contact made her realize that we are infinitesimally small in a universe that is large beyond our comprehension.  But as humans we are precious.  We are connected.  We are not alone.  She may not be able to provide physical evidence, but she held fast to what she saw, and what she knows to be true.
            When I turned to John’s gospel to reread this story of the blind man receiving sight, I thought about this scene from Contact.  Like Arroway, the blind man has an experience that he knows to be true, but everyone around him refuses to believe.  Unlike Arroway, he has physical evidence to offer.  He was physically blind.  Now he can physically see.  Yet he was still questioned and harangued about what happened to him, and what he knew to be true. 
In our time and context, we understand that blindness is not a consequence of sin.  But as we read in our story, sin and sinfulness were considered the root causes of someone being born blind.  So when Jesus and the disciples came upon this man born blind, the disciples had only one response to his condition.  It was posed in the form of the question, “Who sinned?”  Was this man the sinner?  Was it his sinfulness that was the cause of his blindness, or was it the sinfulness of his parents?  It must be one or the other.  Blindness was the result of sinfulness.  So, who sinned?
            Although Jesus’ response sounds straightforward, it bears repeating that every story in John’s gospel is couched in metaphor and has layers of meaning.  It stands to reason, then, that Jesus’ response to the disciples is also metaphorical and layered in meaning. 
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
            Does this mean that Jesus was saying God afflicted the man with blindness so that someday when he was an adult, he could be used as an object lesson for other people?  I don’t think so.  I think a deeper, more accurate understanding is that the man’s blindness was just that, a sad but random happening.  But Jesus knew that through this man God’s glory could and would be revealed.  When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, he spoke to her not just of water she could carry in her buckets, but of living water that would revive her soul.  Jesus told Nicodemus that it was his birth, his forming and shaping, in and by the Spirit that would give him salvation and new life.  So too, this blind man would see.  He would see not just the physical world around him, but he would see and recognize the revelation of God’s glory. 
            As one commentator noted, Jesus’ actions take on a baptismal quality.  He spits on the ground, makes mud, and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes.  He tells the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.  The man did this, and when the mud was washed away, he returned able to see, both the world around him and God’s glory. 
            Upon his return, the neighbors and others who knew him before took notice.  “Wait a minute, isn’t this the guy who was blind?  Isn’t this the one we knew as a beggar; the one who’s been blind since birth?” 
            Speculation began.  Some of the people believed that it really was him.  But others said, “No that’s not that guy.  It looks like him, but it’s not him.”
            Yet the man kept insisting that he was the one who was blind but could now see.  He said, “I am the man.”  One scholar points out that this man is the only other person to use the phrase, “I am” except Jesus.  I am the man.  So the neighbors asked him, “How did this happen?  How did you receive your sight?”
            He told them exactly what Jesus did.  He spat on the ground, made mud, spread the mud on my eyes, told me to go wash.  I did and now I see.  Now I see.
            However, it was all too suspicious.  No one is born blind then given sight.  The man was brought before the Pharisees, the religious authorities.  An investigation took place.  The Pharisees, like the neighbors, asked the man how he received his sight.  Again, he told them.  Yet rather than rejoice in this miraculous healing, this giving of sight, the Pharisees became more concerned about the timing.  This happened on the Sabbath.  Obviously, Jesus was not “from God” because he willingly broke the Law.  No one truly from God would do that.  But the man’s story never changed.  He told the Pharisees exactly what he told the other people.  He was blind, but Jesus gave him sight.  He was blind.  Now he can see.
            John tells us that the Pharisees are divided.  Jesus broke the Law, so he must be a sinner.  But how could a sinner perform such signs?  This man could now see.  The Pharisees then questioned the man about Jesus.  What does he say about him?  He’s the one who was given sight by Jesus.  All the man will say about Jesus’ identity is that he is a prophet.
            The Jews – we need to understand here that John is speaking of the Jewish religious authorities, not just Jews in general – decided that it wasn’t possible that this man was actually born blind.  So they tracked down his parents.  They questioned them.  “Is this your son and was he born blind?”
            The parents were afraid.  They were afraid of being forced out of the synagogue, out of the community and its fellowship.  It was already known that anyone who gave credence to Jesus would suffer those consequences.  So out of fear, they handed over their own son.  “We know that this is our son.  We know that he was born blind.  But we don’t know how he’s seeing now and we don’t know who made him see.  Look, don’t bother us anymore.  He’s of age.  Ask him.”
            One more time the religious authorities called the man in for questioning. “Give glory to God,” they tell him, “we know that this man is a sinner.”  This wasn’t an invitation to praise God for what Jesus had done.  It wasn’t a call to actually give glory to God.  It was a warning.  This Jesus, this sinner must be denied, and any authority he might have, undermined.  But the man refused to back down.  He refused to speculate or categorize Jesus in anyway. 
            “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 
            To me this is the crux of the entire passage.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. 
            The man would not let them take that away from him.  He would not let his experience of moving from blindness to sight be hijacked to accommodate the power driven agendas of others.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
            The Pharisees couldn’t accept this.  They reviled the man.  They accused him of being a disciple of Jesus, a sinner, while they, the good and righteous people, were disciples of Moses. 
            The man didn’t take their bait.  He even took them to task for their lack of understanding. 
            “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 the 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 nothing.”
            For the Pharisees, that was the final straw.  They responded, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”  They did what people most feared.  They drove him out of the synagogue and out of the fellowship of the worshipping community. 
            At this point Jesus returned to the scene.  We don’t know where he was during this lengthy interrogation, but when he heard that the man was driven out of the synagogue, Jesus went looking for him.  Jesus asked the man one question, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  The man born blind only wanted to know the identity of the Son of Man, so that he may worship him.  Jesus answers, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  With that, the man believed.   
            A fellow pastor remarked that in this entire story, every person involved with the man objectifies him.  They treated him as a thing to be argued over, fought over, used.  Jesus was the only one who saw him as an individual, who through no fault of his own or anyone else, was blind.  Jesus gave this man, this individual, this unique creation of God, his sight.  And from this powerful experience, the man believed in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of Man. 
            One thing I do know that though I was blind, now I see. 
            No one was able to take that experience away from him.  No one could convince him that what he knew was false or delusional.  It was real.  Now I see.
            And not only did he see in the physiological sense.  He saw the truth of Jesus, his identity, his reality.  He saw the Messiah standing in front of him and believed.  But the righteous people, the people who had never spent a day without sight could not see.  They may have been able to pass an eye exam on the first try, but they were blind.  They could not see; they could not accept what was right before their eyes:  Jesus, the Son of Man; the Son of God. 
            How are we blind?  It is easy, perhaps, to relate to the man born blind.  We have seen, in one way or another, the revelation of God’s glory.  Yet I know that I am also like the Pharisees.  I see what I want to.  More accurately, I don’t see what I don’t want to.  How quickly I find myself stuck in the groove of my own righteousness.  I know what’s true and what isn’t.  But when I read this story, I get a glimpse of another truth.  I may be able to see, but I can also be blind. Blind to the revelation of God’s glory because it sometimes appears in ways I don’t like.  I’m blind because sometimes it breaks the rules I believe to be firm.  I’m blind because encountering Jesus in a way I’m unprepared for scares me.  I ask the question again, how are we blind?  In this season of Lent may our eyes be opened to God’s work in our midst; but even more may our hearts be opened to the glory of God all around us.  As we draw closer and closer to Good Friday, may we also proclaim, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  Now I see.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

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