Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Sermon for Lent 4: John 9:1-41

Open our Eyes

In one of Jean Vanier’s books he tells the story of an experience he had with a government official at the original L’Arche community in France. The official was conducting some business with Vanier in his office when one of the residents of the community, a mentally challenged young man, came in without knocking with a big smile on his face. He greeted Jean and shook hands with him, then turned to the government official and gave him the same smiling greeting. The young man then left the office. The government official looked at Jean Vanier and said ‘Sad, isn’t it?’

This is an illustration of how two people can look at the same event and see two completely different things happening. As Vanier commented, to him it wasn’t sad at all, but was a sign of God’s grace and love flowing to him through the young man. But this is what spiritual blindness does to us, you see; it prevents us from seeing the reality of the work that God is doing in the world.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus heals a man who has been blind from birth. However, more is going on in this story than a physical healing. To John, the writer of the Gospel, the story acts as a parable about our spiritual journey from darkness to light – or, alternatively, our refusal to make that journey. Let’s take a closer look at this movement from darkness to light in the man who was born blind.

The man’s starting point is that he has been blind from birth. The former slave trader John Newton wrote the famous words ‘I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’. Newton of course was not literally blind; he was referring to his earlier life as a sea captain and a slaver, a life in which he was blind to the love of God in Christ and to the true significance of the suffering human beings he was buying and selling. But through a gradual process of Christian conversion Newton’s eyes were opened and he came to a living faith in Jesus. He did not immediately give up his slave trading; like many people in the eighteenth century, he at first saw no contradiction between Christian faith and slavery. But gradually the Lord opened his eyes on that issue as well, and eventually he worked alongside William Wilberforce and the others for the abolition of the slave trade.

In today’s gospel John wants us to see that, like the man in the story, we are all ‘born blind’. Consider, for instance, how quickly and easily we use the word ‘mine’. After children learn to say ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’, very soon afterwards they learn the word ‘mine’, and they never forget it. And doesn’t this word show how blind we are to true reality? Scripture says ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it’ (Psalm 24:1). I might think that I own a condo and a car and five thousand books, but I’m deluding myself if I think that’s a true view of spiritual reality. It all belongs to God, and if I think otherwise, I’m just giving evidence of how cloudy my spiritual sight is.

Our human blindness shows itself in other ways, too – for instance, in the common belief that life consists of the short span of years between our birth and our death. To many of our contemporaries, this is their one chance for happiness, which is why death is such a terrifying prospect for so many. And tied to this, of course, is the idea that reality is limited to what can be discovered by our five senses. Anything else is illusion.

In C.S. Lewis’ children’s story The Last Battle, he tells about a group of dwarfs who stumble into a stable that turns out to be a doorway into the next world. But because of their hatred and resentment, they are unable to see this. Those around them can see that they are sitting in the middle of a beautiful meadow with sumptuous food available to them, but all they can see is the darkness of the stable.

In John’s story, we see this blindness in the religious establishment, who refuse to open their eyes to the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. In the story, the blind man’s spiritual vision is gradually getting clearer, but in contrast the religious leaders keep their eyes tight shut.

So the man starts out blind from birth. But the next step is the beginning of change, as he has his eyes opened by Jesus. For John, this is a parable of Christian conversion – the process by which people who have no faith, or only a nominal faith, become committed followers of Jesus Christ. What can we learn about Christian conversion in this story in John’s Gospel?

First, we learn that it is the work of Jesus. There is no emphasis on human faith in this story until the end, after Jesus has opened the man’s eyes. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, this is not a process we can control. The Spirit blows where he will. Only he can give us this gift of true spiritual sight.

The second thing we learn is that conversion is often gradual. Although the man’s physical sight is restored instantly, his spiritual sight takes longer. As the chapter progresses we can see how his ideas about Jesus are gradually getting clearer. In verse 11 he calls him ‘the man they call Jesus’; in verse 17 he goes further and says ‘He is a prophet’. In verse 25 he’s not sure whether Jesus is a sinner or not, but in verse 33 he opposes the view of the religious leaders that Jesus is a sinner and says ‘If this man were not from God, he could do nothing’. And then at the end of the story he comes to believe that Jesus is ‘the Son of Man’, a title used in the book of Daniel for the one to whom God will give everlasting dominion and authority over all peoples, nations and languages. The man comes to believe this and bows in allegiance to Jesus as his Lord.

In some ways this story could have been written for those of us who were baptized as infants and then came gradually to conscious faith in Jesus. John is powerfully alive to symbolism throughout his gospel, and no doubt is well aware of the fact that Jesus sent the man to a pool of water to wash his eyes. We’re reminded of chapter three where we’re told that we need to be born ‘of water and the Holy Spirit’ – surely an allusion to Christian baptism. And for many of us here today, we were baptized as infants, and then as we grew up we gradually came to a clearer and clearer picture of Jesus and who he is, until we were able to express a mature faith in him by committing ourselves to him as our Lord.

But let’s not delude ourselves that the process stops there. As I said with regard to John Newton, it’s possible for followers of Jesus to continue to be blind to certain aspects of God’s truth. Newton came to believe in Jesus, but didn’t at first understand the significance of the scripture passage that tells us that every human being is made in God’s image. It wasn’t until later that his eyes were opened to the evil of slavery. In our own century, many people have been convinced that racism was not contrary to the scriptures; in fact, the apartheid regime in South Africa was officially supported by many Christian churches who believed that it was not God’s will for different races to mix with each other. Over and over again Christians have proved the truth of Paul’s words, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It’s a sobering truth that in this passage it is the religious establishment who persecuted Jesus and the man he had healed. It’s a sad reality that so often people of faith become convinced that they are right and that those who disagree with them are wrong. We close our minds to the possibility that we may not yet have a complete understanding of the mind of God. Other people might read the same scriptures as us and come to different conclusions. One of the seventeenth century Puritan preachers once said that ‘God still has more light and truth to break forth from his holy word’. And a twentieth century novelist, Susan Howatch, taught me one of the most important phrases any Christian needs to learn: “I need to remember that I can be wrong!” So we need to continue to pray that the Lord will open our eyes, so that we can learn to see the world as he sees it.

There’s another sobering truth in this passage as well – the truth that the man who was healed of his blindness began to experience persecution almost immediately. In this gospel reading it was the religious establishment who persecuted him. According to their categories, Jesus couldn’t be a genuine prophet because he healed this man on the Sabbath day, the day of rest. Healing was work, and if Jesus worked on the Sabbath he was a lawbreaker and not a true man of God. And their attitude to the man born blind quickly turns abusive: ‘Then they reviled him… They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out’ (vv.28, 34).

In some parts of the world today it is true that Christians are persecuted for their faith at the hands of people of other religions – just as Christians, sadly, have sometimes persecuted others. But in our western world we aren’t likely to suffer for our faith at the hands of people of other faiths. Still, not everyone is going to be jumping for joy that our eyes have begun to be opened and we’re starting to see the world as God sees it. People who have learned that the God who loves his enemies also calls Christians to love their enemies won’t always be popular in a society where that’s considered to be unpatriotic. People who have learned that it’s not necessary to own a lot of stuff in order to be happy will often be looked on as oddballs in a society where everyone wants the latest luxury – and where a billion-dollar advertising industry is dedicated to persuading us that we need it. People who do their best to live in honesty and integrity will find that their lives shine the light of God into dark places – but some people prefer the darkness and will not be happy that the light is shining on them.

So we Christians should not be surprised if we sometimes face opposition because of our faith in Jesus. The New Testament assumes that this will happen. We don’t go out looking for it, but we don’t shy away from it, either. After all, Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him. Surely we didn’t think that was always going to be a pleasant walk in the park?

So this passage sets out for us the process of Christian conversion. We begin our journey blind to who Jesus is, and blind to the true nature of reality. Then Jesus comes and begins the process of enlightenment. For many of us here, it began at our baptism and continues to lead up to the time when we give our allegiance to Jesus as our Lord. But the process doesn’t stop there; our eyes continue to be somewhat clouded to the truth of God, and so we don’t assume that we now see everything perfectly; we continue to ask God to open our eyes and to help us to understand aspects of his truth that may not be clear to us all at once. And sooner or later this commitment to Jesus gets us into trouble; this is its inevitable result. It’s not a sign that we’re doing something wrong, but rather that we’re being faithful to the truth as Jesus has revealed it to us.

Jesus is still at work in the world today, opening people’s eyes and helping them to live by the light they have received. This passage sets before us two possible responses to what God is doing in Jesus. Like the religious establishment of his day, we can continue to find reasons to oppose what God is doing. Or, like the blind man who was healed, we can allow Jesus to open our eyes wider and wider until we see reality as God sees it, and give our heartfelt allegiance to Jesus as Lord of all.

There’s a chorus that goes along very well with the theme of this passage. Some of you will know it, and you might want to sing it along with me as a prayer that God will open our eyes to the truth that is in Jesus:
‘Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus,
To reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen;
Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus’.

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