Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 30, 2014 (John 9:1-41)

I was in a play once in high school where fifteen minutes before we were supposed to go on stage for the first performance, our director called us together for a brief meeting that we thought was going to be a pep talk. The play we were performing was a tough one with lots of characters and complicated entrances and exits. Instead of giving us a pep talk, though, he reassigned everyone’s roles, just like that. We had been practicing for weeks, struggling even to learn our own lines and stage directions, much less anyone else’s. Without any forewarning, he read off a list of the new cast breakdown. Everyone, except for the main character, was going to be playing a completely different role than they had originally thought. The people who had been in supporting roles had been promoted to key players. Those who had memorized the biggest parts of the dialogue were suddenly on the sidelines. There we all stood, in full costume and makeup, our jaws on the floor. He looked at us, unmoved by our protests, and said, “You’ve got fifteen minutes to change your clothes.”

That poor audience! It goes without saying that our first performance was much shorter than it was supposed to be and probably left all those who watched it even more confused than we were.

Something very similar is going on in this story about the healing of the man born blind and his cast of supporting actors. Jesus is the director, switching up roles and confusing characters all over the place. By the end, those who are supposed to be blind end up being able to see, but those who once could see are now blind. The ones who are supposed to be marked by sin are the ones who actually show God’s glory, and the ones who should be able to testify to God’s might end up as sinful. God bless the person or congregation who understands what they’re hearing! One often doesn’t know what to make of Jesus and of the change he brings about in people’s lives, the change he brings about in the great drama of life. If this morning’s story doesn’t illustrate that for us, I don’t know what will.

Healing of the Man Born Blind (El Greco, 1570)
When the story begins, we meet a man who is born blind, and right off the bat we get a glimpse into how people of Jesus’ day viewed illnesses and handicaps. They were evidence of retribution. As far as the disciples and the other by-standers were concerned, his blindness was a result of some kind of moral or religious failing—maybe even on the part of his parents’. Jesus’ quick answer, however, redirects our focus, especially when it comes to physical or mental limitations. The point is not why this man is blind; the point is, rather, how might he show forth God’s light.  The important thing about this man is not what happened in his past that got him to his current state but how God may bring about a new future for him. The question is not how did this man get this way, but how might God’s works be shown in him anyway?

That is the important question about any of us, isn’t it, really? How are God’s works being revealed in you, even though those areas of your life you would declare terribly broken? The understanding of our lives should be less focused on why we are the way we are and more on how can God’s works be revealed in us, even in those areas of our lives we know aren’t perfect. This does not mean that we do not take into consideration a person’s disabilities or struggles with life, but it does mean we are careful about how our approaches to their situation might label or limit them. In this story, Jesus sees the blind man not as a case for debating cause and effect, but instead views him as someone who can lead others to greater understanding of God. When Jesus is the director, our lives can cast greater vision than we can we can ever imagine.

As miraculous as this man’s healing is, however, Jesus is more intent on bringing about a deeper miracle. Which miracle? The miracle of faith, the wonder of trusting in God. The man’s new vision, we understand, is only a part of the equation, the narrative hook that gets us and everyone else interested in the plot that follows. The person who started out as a focus of pity or shame is now the hero, the one with the chance to see what no one else apparently can: that Jesus is the light of the world.

Icon of the healing of the man born blind
None of us needs to be a scholar in Greek to begin to figure out that seeing has something to do with knowing and understanding. As we hear the story we begin to grasp what the people of Jesus’ time thought about the sense of sight: that is, that that the eye was a window to the mind. In fact, the verb “to see” is the same word in Greek as “to perceive,” “to regard,” or “to discover.” Think of which form of communication you’d rather use to connect with a loved one: the telephone, or Facetime? Texting or Skype? There is something about being able to seeing someone that helps us know a little more about them.

So, as the man’s eyes are opened, his mind also begins to understand and discover just who Jesus is, and that is the more important transformation of the two. On the other hand, the religious officials end up truly blind, not because they can’t see, but because they can’t understand who this Jesus really is or what really has happened.

Looking at the transformation of the blind man, we notice something very interesting: while the blind man’s physical eyes are opened rapidly, the opening of his spiritual sight is a little more gradual. At first the man born blind refers to his healer simply as “the man called Jesus.” A little later he claims Jesus is a prophet. Still later, he admits that Jesus is “from God,” and only toward the end of the story, when Jesus is speaking directly with him, does the man confess belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

There are some folks for whom belief in Jesus is sudden and miraculous, like someone has thrown the switch and the light comes on in a flash, the night of doubt dissipating almost immediately. For many, however, the journey to faith is more similar to this man born blind: the light of knowing and understanding is gradual and incremental, more like a dimmer switch that can fluctuate back and forth. Regardless of which situation applies to you, the miracle is that in this world of darkness we can see at all and come to know that the one who has created us has also sent someone to love and redeem us, to bring light into a world dimmed by human sin. The miracle is that in spite of our selfishness, in spite of our timeworn ability to use what little vision we do have to stare only at our own reflections and our own needs, God still can bring about faith that opens us up to others. At some point, by God’s grace, we look up and find our creator and redeemer has been speaking with us the entire time.

Jesus himself explains that he came into the world in order to bring judgment, to re-assign those roles in the drama of human life. Those who think they can see human destiny so clearly without any influence from Jesus’ love are the ones who continue to live blind, while those who are aware of their need for God’s grace are actually the ones who get to play the big part of visionary. The good news is that God can always break into that blindness and transform even the gloomiest night. Ultimately Jesus is the light that no darkness can overcome.

The last thing that the man born blind does in the story is worship Jesus, and there we see the endpoint, the conclusion, the final act of this story. His faith in a God who can transform the world leads him finally to live for God’s glory, to point his life in the direction of heaven. It makes me think of a quote by writer Annie Dillard in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She says, “The question from agnosticism is, Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?”

Whatever for has this God created us?

Whatever for…do blind people see?

Whatever for…do we see the darkest soul come to display the most brilliant light?

It is for…his glory that this loving God’s works may be revealed among us. So, whatever role we you were assigned at the beginning of this life or at the beginning of this day, whatever character you think you’re supposed to play, or whatever costume and mask you’re wearing now, may God grant you the faith to know you live for him, that even your life can display his glory, and that you live to worship and follow him.

No worry about learning any new lines, or even changing clothes with someone else. God will take care of the change…from the inside out.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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