Who Is Blind and Who Can See?

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Tue, 03/28/2017 - 12:00pm

John 9:1-41
Steve Hollaway
Harbor Church
March 26, 2017, Lent 4

          Blind people are a mystery to many of us. What is it like to make sense of the world without vision to guide you? How do you connect to a person without seeing a face? The first blind person I got to know was a guy from Indiana named Bill who came to our College Sunday School Class one summer in Nashville. He was my age, humorous, gregarious, and I volunteered to pick him up for church every Sunday. He was a college student all right, but he was a student at a college of mortuary science. I never knew such a thing existed. It filled my minds with questions—I who had attended exactly one funeral at that point in my life: How was it going to work to be a blind mortician? How would you put in the fluids, do the makeup, get them dressed, and direct traffic at the funeral? I’m sure Bill figured it all out.

         Don’t blind musicians amaze you? Later in college I got to know Ken Medema, who went from working as a music therapist to being a brilliant songwriter and performer. Ken—40 years later now—can ask the audience to throw out three random words and three random notes and write a song about it on the spot. He’s recorded almost 50 CDs, performed in churches and large venues all over the world, and stayed married to his wife Jane, who was once my boss, for 52 years.

         Blind musicians remind us that there is more than one kind of vision. Think of the genius of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, or the gospel music of Blind Willie Johnson and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Did you even know Andrea Bocelli is blind? Jazz singer Diane Schuur? Jose Feliciano? Traditionally, at least, the great poet Homer was blind. John Milton, the greatest English religious poet, became blind at age 30, and wrote the really, really long Paradise Lost by dictation. The most prolific hymn writer ever, who has 12 songs in our hymnal, was the blind Fanny Crosby.

         So it’s not true that blind people have to be healed to have a life. That is not the point of the story in John 9, although I have realized that most of the healing stories in the gospels are troubling to disabled people who don’t feel they need to be healed. Yes, Jesus did heal people who wanted to be healed, and while this story in John 9 may be based on a historical incident (although maybe not), the story’s function in the gospel is symbolic. John calls the miracles in the gospel “signs” because they point to a deeper reality and a truth about Jesus. This is the sixth of the seven signs that structure the first half of John’s gospel, the last being the raising of Lazarus which points to the truth that Jesus is the resurrection and the life for us. In chapter 8, Jesus has said that he is the light of the world, and then comes this story to act out the truth that Jesus gives light in the form of vision to a man who had lived in darkness.

         In the end this story is not about literal physical blindness; at least that’s not its main concern. It’s part of the whole motif of light and darkness, seeing and believing, that runs through the gospel from the very beginning. You remember how the prologue goes, the part we read on Christmas Eve? His life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it. We have seen his glory. No one has ever seen God, but the only Son has made him known—Jesus has made it possible for us to see the invisible God in his own life and death and resurrection. Jesus gives a summary statement about his mission in John 12:46, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” I love the words of 1 Peter 2:9 which says that our purpose is to “proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

         As we hear the story of the blind man’s healing, we have the choice of hearing it from the point of view of the man who receives sight or from the point of view of the religious people who questioned his experience and Jesus’ authority. John expects readers who are believers to identify with the blind man because at one point we couldn’t see who Jesus was; we didn’t have the equipment to take in those frequencies of light, but something mysterious happened to us and we could see. That’s what coming to faith is like. Paul Martinson of Luther Seminary wrote a paper about the difference between a religion of surprise and a religion of discovery. Many religions teach a path for us to discover the spiritual through certain practices which help us to learn about reality. But Christianity is a religion of being surprised by God’s reality, by a mercy which comes out of nowhere and opens us up. That’s why our faith can’t be shoved into a curriculum guaranteed to bring you to faith, and why sermon preparation is always a matter of being surprised by some new light that breaks forth from the scripture. Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God is a God who surprises, not a God we can seek and find by human wisdom or religious practice.

         Do you know the story of C. S. Lewis becoming a Christian? He was an atheist through college and into his teaching career at Oxford, where he met a group of Christian scholars, the most famous being J. R. R. Tolkien. At one point, after thinking through questions they raised, he admitted that God existed and became a conscious theist, “the most reluctant convert,” he said, in all of Britain. But he had not yet become a Christian. Since C. S. Lewis was probably more effective at explaining Christianity than any writer in the 20th century, you would think that he would explain his own conversion in a clear way. Since we think of him as a kind of evangelical, Americans assume he would have a moment when he asked Jesus into his heart. But Lewis says that his faith in Christ came to him while he was riding with his brother on a trip to the zoo.

When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion…. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

That’s like the experience of the blind man in our story. He can’t say how his eyes were opened, although the religious leaders are obsessed with that question. All he knows is that he can see. We don’t usually know how we came to faith. All we know is that at some point we recognized that we did believe. Somehow Jesus touched us, or the Spirit moved in us, and whereas we could not perceive that reality before, now we can.

         There are a lot of questions asked about the blind man in the story. You could say that the disciples don’t really see the man. To them he’s a theological problem. Who do we blame for his blindness? Did he do something wrong, or was it his parents? Jesus looks at the blind man and sees a person in need of healing. Blame and sin have nothing to do with it.

         The neighbors of the blind man have not really seen him either. They have probably ignored him sitting begging in the same spot for years, and when they see him with sight they aren’t even sure this is the same guy. “No, he just looks like him,” some say. When the formerly blind man says, “I’m your man!” they ask him what becomes the question in the story: “How were your eyes opened?” The man has no answer but “just the fact, Ma’am”—Jesus made mud and put it on my eyes and told me to go wash. But how the miracle happened he has no idea.

         The Pharisees, the conservative religious leaders, are suspicious of Jesus and bothered that he does not carefully follow all their rules, like “since kneading bread is considered work on the Sabbath, rolling a little ball of mud in your hand is also work and forbidden.” But a question they come back to is “How did you receive your sight?” “How could a sinner do a miracle?” Then they ask his parents the same thing: “If he was born blind, how does he now see?” They call the formerly blind man back in and ask him again, “How did he open your eyes?” The truth is that nobody knows how Jesus did it. The mud doesn’t explain it. There are no magic words. Washing at Siloam alone wouldn’t do it. And it really doesn’t matter to the man born blind how he did it. “I only know one thing,” he says, “once I was blind and now I see.”

         This is the song of all Christians, not just John Newton in Amazing Grace. I can’t say how it happened. It was just God’s mercy and grace at work in my life. I was oblivious to so much, but then my eyes were opened; it’s like I was sleepwalking and then woke up. In Newton’s case he realized that he was blind to the evil of the slave trade he was involved in; he was blind to the humanity of those he was transporting and selling. He was blind to his own racism and white privilege. But how was he made aware of that? I doubt he could say. “It was grace that taught my heart to fear” judgment for what I was doing, “and grace my fears relieved.”

         When the Pharisees press the man born blind about how Jesus did it, he gets bold and asks them “Why do you want to hear the story again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” That is, I have already become Jesus’ disciple. The religious ones insist that they are disciples of Moses, but they don’t know where Jesus comes from. He’s not from around here. He may be from the devil. The formerly blind man says, “Ha! Now that’s amazing! Even though you don’t know where he came from, he opened my eyes. I’m guessing he came from God, because God is listening to him. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do anything.” At that, the Pharisees flip. Most translations render their words literally as “You were born entirely in sin,” but the old Living Bible catches the meaning when is has them shouting “You illegitimate bastard, you!” Then they drive him out of the Temple, out of the Jewish community, as had happened to many of the readers of John’s gospel.

         Jesus hears that the man has been excommunicated, so he goes looking for him. He asks what may seem like a strange question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” That’s a name Jesus calls himself, but it’s a name for a person the Jews expected to come in the last days. The man born blind asks, “Who is he? Tell me so I can believe in him.” Of course Jesus says, “You have seen him”—mind you, this is the first time he has ever actually seen Jesus—“and the one speaking with you is he.” The man responds like Thomas, like the Roman soldier whose daughter is ill: “Lord, I believe.” This is the point in the story where the spiritual meaning of the healing, essentially the meaning of this parable, is made explicit. I see = I believe.

         Then Jesus says something that sounds harsh. “This is the judgment that I have brought to the world.” The Greek word for judgment is krisis: this is the crisis I have brought into the world—I have brought light into the world, so that those who cannot see may be enlightened. But those who think they already see will become blind. The effect of the truth on them will be confirm them in their own prior conceptions, and they will refuse to open their eyes to me. Some of the Pharisees overhear this and ask, “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” And Jesus responds, “Bingo!” “If you admitted that you can’t see, you would not be guilty of the sin of pride and unbelief, but you insist you already have the answers, so you are stuck in sin.”

         In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard tells the story of the first surgeons who learned to remove cataracts, operating on people who had been blind since birth. When they were given sight, the patients were confused by what they saw because it did not fit with their preconceived ideas of the world. Many had no idea of size or depth and shape. They still saw the world in two dimensions, as flat things with dark patches. Some loved seeing colors, but they experienced them as color-patches which they would bump into several times before having any sense that the colors represented objects. For some of the patients, this new world was overwhelming and they refused to use their new eyes, closing them when they went outside, preferring to feel objects with their tongues, one boy saying he wanted to be sent back to the school for the blind.

         That is the problem of the Pharisees and of so many of us. We have a way of perceiving the world, and when Jesus gives us new eyes to see spiritual realities, we can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance. Some given new eyes turn away, preferring the sense that they have always been right. I remember an older lady in Kentucky saying to me, “If what you are saying is right, that means we have been doing it wrong all these years, and I just can’t bear that.” The key to seeing is to understand that we do not see. Paul said that even in the Christian life, “we see through a glass darkly” or “what we see now is like a dim reflection in a cheap mirror…now we know only in part.” As long as we think we know it all, we cannot learn and cannot see. Those who have all the answers are blind to what Jesus might reveal to them. That’s why some speak of “the sin of certainty.” Christianity is not being sure you have all the answers, but experiencing a mercy that takes away your lifelong blindness so that you can see the new reality of God’s love and his kingdom’s ways.

         A preacher named Janet Hunt has said, “My prayer today, and most every day, is that I might overcome the Pharisee in me—that I might be open to the surprise of what I do not yet know or even think I need to know.” May that be our prayer today as well.