(John 9: 1-41)
(Note: Today’s service was a virtual service online, as our church has suspended all church activities due to the coronavirus until further notice. If you’d like to see the service in its entirety, click HERE).
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ After Jesus said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’. Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
It starts off like any typical miracle, if there is such a thing. There’s a man who’s been blind from birth. There’s this curious side conversation Jesus and the disciples have – about whether the man’s blindness comes from his own sin or the sin of his parents. Strange as it might sound today, it was a common understanding in the ancient world that things like blindness or leprosy or other ailments were the result of sin or something amiss in the family tree.
The disciples treat this man like a museum exhibit; like something to be observed – not as a fellow human being, not as someone they ought to be in relationship with. And it is highly unlikely that they were unique in this. This man here knows isolation. He knows what it’s like to be alone. He knows the worst kind of social distancing – because where ours is something we are doing, his was something that was done to him. As long as he has been alive, everyone has gone to great lengths to put distance between themselves and him.
But Jesus sees the bigger picture here; he sees what others have not taken time to see. This man’s blindness, Jesus tells his disciples, is an opportunity – to show God’s light to the world. In other words, what this means is that we have more than a miracle of practicality here; more than wine for the wedding or food for the hungry or saving someone from the thrashing waves. What we have here is a miracle to prove a point.
And it’s kind of gross, the way Jesus does it, to be honest. Spitting on the ground and making a mud pie and rubbing in the blind man’s eyes. This is the kind of thing that gets someone in-school suspension for a week! And yet that’s what Jesus does, and then tells the man to go and wash his eyes in a nearby pool. And that, we are told, is when it happens – that is when the man’s eyes are opened in a way they’d never been before, not for his whole life; and now they are able to take in, for the very first time, all the brilliant light, the colors, the shapes and textures and dimensions of a world he had only known before through hearing and touch and taste.
That would appear to be the end of the miracle, right? A blind man is now able to see. Case closed. Except it wasn’t the end. In fact, the real miracle was just beginning.
The neighbors and those who’d seen him as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, Yes, it is he.’ Others said, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ The man kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He said, ‘The man named Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash your eyes.” Then I went and washed them and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is Jesus?’ And the man said, ‘I do not know.’
There’s a part of us that wishes that the miracle ended with the blind man getting his sight, don’t you think? It’s that same part of us that wants the movie to end with the guy getting the girl, the interview to yield the job of our dreams, the difficult conversation going exactly as we hoped. It would be great if this story finished all nice and neat at verse 7, and the image left in our minds is of some formerly blind guy jumping for joy in that pool, splashing water all over the place; and then running around, hugging everyone, eyes wide open, soaking in the pure brilliance of this brand new world he’d been welcomed into.
But the miracle is not over yet – not even close. Because John still has something more to say; because it is not just one man’s eyes who need to be opened.
And we should not let the irony escape us; the brutal irony of a miracle story where a blind man gets his sight and everyone else suddenly loses theirs. His family and friends start arguing over whether this guy really is their friend, or someone who just looks like him. They’re all concerned with the “how” of the miracle, because spit and mud and pool water are rarely the tools used for eyesight restoration. And the thing of it is, this whole time, the man keeps telling them that all he knows is that he used to be blind and now can see.
I’m not sure if believing in miracles is easy or hard, but I do think it is always tempting to latch on to an explanation; something that appears reasoned and rational. I also know that some things – good things and bad things – have no explanation at all. Even though we would very much like for them to, even though we need for them to; because not having an explanation for this good thing or this bad thing is a harsh reminder of the one truth that terrifies us to our core: that we are not in control, that God is, and that there is nothing we can do about it.
Why, I wonder, could they not let the formerly blind man just see, and go on with his life? And why did they choose to go further and further into their own blindness? It makes me wonder what those things are that we’re failing to see, things that are right in front of us, things we ought to be paying attention to?
They brought the formerly been blind man to the Pharisees. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. The Pharisees also began asking him how he received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed them, and now I see.’ And some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God; he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they asked the man again, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ And the man said, ‘He must be a prophet.’
The Jews did not believe that he was blind before receiving his sight, so they went to the man’s parents. And they asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, “Yes, he is our son; and yes, he was born blind; but we have no idea how he now sees or who it was that opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He can speak for himself.’
So for the second time they went to the man who’d been blind and said, ‘Give glory to God! We know this man who told you to wash your eyes is a sinner.’ And the man answered, ‘I don’t know if he’s a sinner. All I know is that I once was blind and now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ And he said, ‘I have told you already, but you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we don’t know where he comes from.’
The man said to them, ‘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 those who worship him and obey him. 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 do nothing.’ They said to him, ‘You are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.
He is taken to the Pharisees. This kicks things up a notch. The Pharisees were not particular fans of Jesus. They were troubled by his talk of loving enemies and turning the other cheek and walking an extra mile, because that kind of stuff put religious authorities in a precarious position with the powers-that-be. So they hound this man about how Jesus gave him his sight. He repeats the formula: spit, mud, pool water. They ask how Jesus could have possibly done this. And the man hasn’t a clue. He just keeps telling them – he’s practically singing Amazing Grace here – I once was blind, but now I see!
This doesn’t satisfy the Pharisees – they want an “explanation” – so now they go to his parents. His parents! Like a teacher trying to deal with a problem child, they go to his parents! They fire questions left and right at Mom and Dad: Was he born blind? I mean, really blind?? How did Jesus heal him exactly? To which the properly self-differentiated parents respond, Our son is a grown man and can speak for himself, go talk to him.
They go back to the man – again – and ask him more. And this time, the man has reached his limits. Because sometimes there is no “explanation.” The NRSV has him saying, “Here is an astonishing thing!” That seems a little too sanitized to me. I like to think it was more along the lines of, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Seriously??” And so now the tables are turned, and the student has become the teacher; the man who has sight, showing the others just how blind they are.
Jesus heard they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘He is the one speaking to you now.’ And the man said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. And Jesus said, ‘I came into this world so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard him say this, and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
It comes back to Jesus, as it always does And like so much in John, when Jesus speaks to a person or group of persons, the real audience is all of us: I came into this world, he says to you and me, so those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. Thus ends the miracle. But what kind of miracle is this really, we ask ourselves? What is really being healed here?
This miracle of John 9 is a miracle of conviction. It is a miracle of discomfort. It’s a miracle that should make us squirm a little in whatever chair we’re sitting in at the moment. Because this miracle is a miracle of eyes being made wide open.
We’ve all had our eyes made wide open over the past couple of weeks, would you agree? Eyes opened to see not just the devastating effects of a global pandemic, but how this new reality of ours affects us as people – how we interact with each other, how we treat one another, how we “see” one another. The disciples in this story kept the blind man at a distance; they wondered who was at fault, they were looking for someone to blame, because that’s what the weak do in times of crisis. Finding someone to blame justifies their status and gives them permission to ignore the suffering of others, or at least see them as different.
And Jesus refuses to play that game because, while the weak ask, “who is to blame?” the faithful ask, “what can we do?” What the disciples and community as a whole understood as an occasion for judgment and distance, Jesus makes it an occasion for grace. For healing and wholeness. For inclusion and radical welcome. And that miracle is as uncomfortable as spit and mud and pool water.
Jill Duffield, who is editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, asks what I think is an important question in this season we find ourselves in:
I wonder, she asks, as fewer of us worship together and more of us find normal routines disrupted as a result of the coronavirus, I wonder how we will react to this crisis? What will we assume and how will Jesus seek to reveal himself, correct our wrong understandings and bring healing? Could this crisis, if we respond rightly, be an occasion for more radical care, for greater compassion and wider inclusion? Or will we miss the opportunity to show the love of God to those most in need of it?
I, too, have wondered what our church will be like on the other side of this. And I don’t mean that in a negative or fearful way – quite the opposite. How will our church be better at church when this is over? Certainly we’ll be masters at Zoom conference calling, if nothing else. But beyond that – how will this season impact and change our church for the kingdom of God?
Will we have learned how to be better connected to God, to our church family, to our neighbor?
Will we have learned to lean on each other more?
Will we have learned how to put aside our pride and ask for help when we need it, or simply tell the truth when someone asks, “How are you doing?”
Will we be more gracious with each other?
Will we more eagerly step up to needs as they present themselves?
I’m telling you, I think we will – because I’m already seeing it happen, in real time. Right now, I am seeing the wonderful, beautiful ramifications of a community of faith having their eyes collectively opened. I am seeing church members checking in other church members. I am seeing people eager to know how they can help. I am seeing folks relishing in revamped community in these strange times.
I am seeing eyes wide open in us all. And let us not be blind to the miracle that is. The miracle of seeing as Jesus sees; and asking, as Jesus asks, “what can we do?”
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Featured image from http://kiwimadepreaching.com/2018/10/john-9-and-the-tribes-of-india-mark-keown/