Entrenching oneself in absolute certainty is a sure-fire way to fend off fresh encounters with the living God…Here’s a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A:
An Eye-Opening Experience
A Sermon on John 9
We are born into this world equipped with adjustable lenses in our eyes. Depending on what we look at, our lenses thin out or get thicker so that the eye can focus more clearly. What often happens, or even what usually happens is that as our eyes get some age on them, the lenses start losing their flexibility, and they can’t adjust as well any more. So folks start holding the newspaper out farther and farther trying to see it clearly, or they do what I’m doing which is adjust the position of their glasses according to the task at hand. No question about it: it’s time to go to the eye doctor.
That’s what was wrong with the synagogue leaders in our scripture today. That’s what was going on with their spiritual lenses. They had gotten so stuck on seeing God and God’s will one particular way that they resisted Jesus’ new message from God. Their spiritual lenses were hard and rigid. They either couldn’t adjust, or didn’t want to adjust, or maybe both. Jesus diagnosed the problem as blindness.
That diagnosis seems obvious to us. When Jesus gave the gift of physical sight to a man who had been born blind, you would think that the whole town would rejoice and give thanks to God. You’d think they’d be eager to know Jesus and listen to everything he had to say.
But no! Instead of erupting in joy and thanksgiving, the whole town erupted in arguments. The man’s neighbors doubted what they saw. This man must be an imposter, some said. He can’t be the same man who was born blind. As we heard in the lesson, the man had to insist again and again to people who had known him all his life, “Look! It is me! This man Jesus made mud packs, put them on my eyes, sent me to wash in the pool of Siloam, and I did. And now I can see!”
Instead of recognizing the presence and power of God, the religious leaders argued with the man about Jesus. “Jesus isn’t from God,” they insisted. “He can’t be! He broke the law! He worked on the Sabbath. That makes him a sinner. If he really were from God, he would keep the law. Now don’t you go following him. If you do, we are going to kick you out of the congregation.”
The man’s own parents pretended not to know how or who had healed their son. They were afraid they might get thrown out of the congregation.
The authorities pressed the man again. “Come on! Tell us the truth!”
“I told you already,” he exclaimed. “And you wouldn’t listen.” He was exasperated. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be disciples of Jesus?”
“You’re his disciple,” they replied, “but we are disciples of Moses. We know for sure and for certain that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this Jesus comes from.”
“I can’t believe this,” said the man. “You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. If this man weren’t from God, he couldn’t do anything.”
The angry leaders exclaimed, “How dare you! How dare you—a sinner—presume to teach us anything!” And they booted him out of the congregation.
It’s a frustrating story to read. What was the matter with those synagogue leaders? Isn’t the truth obvious? Their refusal to see seems so wrongheaded and misguided to us.
It’s tempting to chalk it all up to the synagogue leaders wanting to hold on to their turf and tell everybody else what to do.
But recently my eyes were opened to a more sympathetic view of these leaders who resisted Jesus. There was much more at stake for them than simply a personal need to be in control. In a book titled The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren, I was reading about the different viewpoints in Jesus’ day about how to cope with the reality of the occupation of the Roman Empire. It was painful to live under the empire, especially when people remembered the days long ago when Israel had been independent and had their own rulers, like King David, the greatest one of all. It was painful to bear the weight of the Romans, who used the threat of terror to keep subjugated people quiet and passive. The threat was this: if you make trouble, you are going to end up like those long lines of people hung on crosses on the road outside the city.
Opinions varied about how to cope with the occupation. There were a few zealots who believed terror tactics were entirely justified: try to push the Romans out with violence. When the zealots were apprehended, they ended up on the rows of crosses. There were others like the Essenes who decided the whole situation was completely hopeless, and they withdrew into a cloistered community apart from everybody else down at the Dead Sea. There were also those who really thought the best thing was to go along to get along with the Romans. The Sadducees and another faction called the Herodians were in this group. Go along to get along in public, and practice your faith in private.
But then there were people like the Pharisees who believed that one day God would send a Messiah to set this situation right. How they longed for the anointed one to come and take the throne. And they felt like the reason God hadn’t sent a Messiah yet was because God’s people didn’t deserve it. Why should God come rescue a people so stained with sin? Everybody in the whole nation needed to get their act together, stop sinning and follow God’s law in every way. If only everybody would keep the law. If only everybody would keep the Sabbath holy in every way, for example. Then at last God will send the Messiah and make things right. We Pharisees can guide the people. We can help lead them to righteousness.
No wonder the Pharisees were trying so hard not to sin themselves! And no wonder they were so critical of other people’s sins. Sinners are holding us all back! With all their hearts they believed sin was what was delaying the Messiah. And so they couldn’t just brush off what looked like sin to them, Jesus breaking the Sabbath, and Jesus seemingly encouraging others to do the same. The future was at stake.
It’s easy for us to see how these leaders of the people of God were missing the point. We can be sure of that from our vantage point two millennia later. But then they were just as certain that Jesus had missed the point, and later that his followers had. That’s why a Pharisee like Paul felt so driven to root out Christianity, which is what he was on his way to do in Damascus some years later. He was on his way to root out the Christians there. It was just unfortunate that some people got hurt: it was in the name of truth and righteousness—wasn’t it? It was unfortunate that people like Stephen had to die—Paul held the rock-throwers’ coats at that sad event—but it seemed necessary in the service of truth. In the name of God it had to be done-didn’t it?
Paul truly thought so. He was sure he was right—until the risen Lord Jesus Christ, confronted him, blinded him with the light, and then made the scales fall from his eyes.
Painful things happen when people are so sure they are right, and when they feel they have to be 100% right and win the argument at whatever cost. Nothing closes the eyes to God’s revelation like absolute certainty. Nothing closes the ears to the voice of God like absolute certainty. Marching along in determined certitude, the people of God participate in all manner of hurt. That’s how Christ himself ended up on the cross. The people of God put him there. They squeezed their eyes and ears and hearts ever more tightly closed and put him on the cross. “We can see just fine,” they declared.
Everybody in the gospel lesson today had the opportunity to let God open their eyes, expand their vision, broaden their knowledge and deepen their love of God. The man who had been physically blind was ready to see, ready to know God more, ready to see God’s will.
But what a tragedy that the rest of the people weren’t ready to have their eyes opened. “Surely we’re not blind. We already know what God wants. We already understand God’s will. We know best. If you don’t go along, you can get out.”
“Surely we’re not blind, are we?”
Only a few vision problems leave a person in complete darkness. Most of the time the problem involves some kind of distortion, or part of the field of vision is missing. What about tunnel vision: getting so focused on our own agenda that we can’t see anything else. Why, God’s agenda must be what we believe it is. What’s wrong with these other people; I know what’s best. That’s how it was for the congregational leaders in the story. Assuming there’s nothing left to learn.
Then there’s the opposite problem: getting so focused on little things on the periphery, we can’t see the main thing right in the middle. Majoring in minors. Getting angry with one another over things that don’t matter, and neglecting the things that do really matter, like caring for the poor and seeking the lost. Then there’s the matter of tears. Eyes can’t stay healthy without them. How can the eyes of the heart truly be healthy without tears for the sick and the suffering and the oppressed? Sometimes one weaker eye will just let the other one do all the work, and then it loses what sight it had.
Oh, surely we’re not blind. Are we?
If you’re sure you see, says Jesus, you’d better watch out.