John 9: 1-41; Psalm 146: 1-10
March 25, 2012
As I was working on this sermon this past week, continuing our journey in the gospel of John and the “signs” that point us closer to Jesus, I thought about – and I know this is going to sound strange, but humor me, okay? – I thought about an old Elton John album: Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player. I always found that a tad odd and, as a piano player, a little troubling; because, really, why would anyone shoot the piano player? Unless, of course, they were playing a song you didn’t like; and given that “Crocodile Rock” is on that album, maybe that’s what they’re talking about. Although personally, I like the song.
But seriously, we know what that title means, right? We know it’s just a play on the whole “don’t shoot the messenger” thing. Hey listen, there’s something you need to know, something I’ve got to tell you: but you’re not going to like it, but hey, it’s for your own good, so don’t blame me!
I was thinking about that Elton John album as I was working on the sermon, because part of me feels like I need to say to you, as I get ready to preach this thing, Don’t shoot me, I’m only the preacher! Alright? Don’t blame me! I’m just saying what’s in here, folks!
Because the sixth sign in the gospel of John, this sixth miracle of Jesus, is categorically different from all preceding it. This story of a man who was healed of his blindness, is not a feel-good miracle. It’s not all cut-and-dry, where empty wines jars get filled, or empty stomachs get food, or a broken body is healed. This miracle does not travel from point A to point B in a straight line; it goes up and down and all over the place. And just when you think it’s starting to wrap up, just when you think it’s reaching its conclusion, you find it keeps going – like that that bunny in the Eveready battery commercial, it keeps going and going and going…...
So: consider yourself warned, First Presbyterian: this miracle is going to take us somewhere we may not want to go. And when that time comes, remember: I’m just the preacher….
I mean, it starts off innocently enough, as Catherine read earlier. It starts off like any typical miracle, if there is such a thing. There’s a guy who has been blind from birth. There’s this interesting side conversation the disciples have with Jesus; whether this man’s blindness was caused by his sin or the sin of his parents. It was a common understanding in the ancient world that things like blindness and leprosy and other ailments were the result of sin or something amiss in the family tree.
But Jesus refutes this thinking outright, because sometimes there’s no explanation for the unexplainable. Instead, Jesus says, this man’s blindness is an opportunity to show God’s light to the world. So we have more than a miracle of practicality here; more than wine for the wedding or food for the hungry or saving someone from drowning in the waves. We have here a miracle to prove a point.
And it’s kind of gross, the way Jesus goes about it, you know? Spitting on the ground and making a little mud pie and then rubbing in the blind man’s eyes. This is the kind of thing that gets a kid in-school suspension for a week! But Jesus does it, and tells the man to go and wash his eyes in a nearby pool. And it’s at that moment, in this bizarre act, that the man’s eyes are opened in a way they’d never been before; and they are able to take in, for the first time in his life, all the brilliant light, the colors, the shapes and textures and dimensions of a world he had only known through hearing and touch and taste.
And it’d be so much simpler for us if this story ended here – all nice and neat at verse 7. Wouldn’t it be just great if the last image we had was 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 in to? Wouldn’t that be the best way to end this little miracle story?
But, it doesn’t end there. And that’s the thing – it keeps going. It keeps going because the story is not over yet; and John still has something to tell us in the remaining 34 verses. And while the focus at the beginning was on the one man, the real story, it appears, is yet to come.
I mean, isn’t it the greatest of ironies that in a miracle story where a blind man gets his sight, everyone else suddenly loses theirs? His family and friends are first. They start arguing about 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 aren’t usually the tools of eyesight restoration. And the whole time, that man keeps telling them, Listen, all I know is that I was blind, and now I see!
So they take him to the Pharisees, which adds a whole other dynamic. The Pharisees, you will recall, were not particular fans of Jesus. They didn’t like him all that much because his talk about loving enemies and turning the other cheek and walking an extra mile kind of undermined the tenuous balance of power the religious authorities had with the Roman empire. They also didn’t care much for the fact that Jesus didn’t share their same fanatical obsession with all 613 laws of the covenant. In fact, he just broke one by healing this guy on the Sabbath, because you weren’t supposed to do much of anything on the Sabbath. So they surround this formerly blind man and ask him how Jesus gave him sight. The man repeats the formula: spit, mud, pool water. They ask him how Jesus could have done this, being a sinner and all. 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!
He’s made his point, hasn’t he? But wouldn’t you know, those Pharisees, God bless them, they go running off to find the guy’s parents. His parents! Like a Sunday school teacher unable to deal with a trouble child, they go find his parents! They knock on their door and fire questions at Mom and Dad: Was he born blind? I mean, really born blind?? How did Jesus heal him exactly? And the parents, aside from being elated at the news that their son who was blind all his life can now see, the parents are caught totally off-guard by this unexpected inquisition. Their only response – and a legitimate one – is that their son is a grown man and fully capable of speaking for himself, so perhaps they go should talk to him.
But the Pharisees already have, so they don’t need to, right? Wrong! It keeps going, this story! And by now, our formerly blind friend is getting a little peeved. He just wants to celebrate, and these guys keep crashing his party. They ask him all kinds of stuff about Jesus; and the man wonders out loud if they might be secret admirers. They get angrier, and accuse him of a misplaced faith. And the man has had enough. The NRSV has him saying, “Here is an astonishing thing!” That a little too stilted for me. I kind of think it was more like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And for a moment, at least, the tables are turned; the student becomes the teacher, one guy schools the whole flock of Pharisees. The man who now has sight, showing the others just how blind they are.
Is that what this miracle is about? You know, it’s interesting; Jesus kind of comes back into the story – he’s sort of been offstage this whole time, a little hiatus. He comes back and says this – and you can bet he’s not just talking to one man here:
I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.
This miracle is not really about eyesight, is it? It’s not about one man’s newfound vision. This miracle is about “those who have made a great pretense of seeing.” They think they see clearly. They think they know it all and have all the answers and can explain everything. But they don’t. And they’re only fooling themselves if they think they do. They’re sure not fooling God.
You know, one of the hardest things about reading the Bible, I think; about reading stories like this, is figuring out who we’re supposed to be in the story – whose story is our story. Because who we are determines the message we get, right? I mean, if we’re the Prodigal Son in the parable by the same name, we’re at a party that God has thrown for us because we’ve repented of our sins and are welcomed home – yay us! But if we’re the older brother, we’re out stewing in the fields because God has extended grace to someone we flat-out don’t think deserves it. If we’re the sheep in Matthew’s famous “Sheep and Goats” passage, we’re welcomed into the heavenly embrace because we’ve helped people and, bonus, helped Jesus too! But if we’re the goats, we’re reminded of all the times we didn’t help Jesus because we didn’t reach out to someone in need.
It would be so easy, First Presbyterian, so easy and so satisfying to see ourselves as the blind man here, wouldn’t it? I once was blind, but now I see! My blindness is a thing of the past – now I see God and see Jesus clearly! But here’s the thing: if that’s how John wanted us to read this, if that’s who John wanted us to identify with, then why did he spend just seven verses talking about one man’s vision and 34 talking about everyone else’s blindness?
Which brings us to the inevitable question we can only avoid for so long: are we the blind man who gets our sight? Or are we the Pharisees and everyone else, who are lost in our blindness? You see now why I issued that little disclaimer at the beginning of the sermon, don’t you? Don’t blame me!
This miracle is a convicting miracle, folks. It is an uncomfortable miracle. It’s a miracle that should make us squirm a little bit in our pew or our cushy Koinonia Room chairs. But it is still a miracle, very much a miracle; just a different kind of miracle. Because sometimes, people, it takes an act of God to cut through our pretense, our pride, our hard-headedness; and show us that, while we may be seeing a little here and there, while we may not be totally blind, we’re still a long way from following Jesus with 20-20 vision.
So many things, right in front of us, clear as day, that we just don’t see. A child who wants nothing more that for us to tell them that we love them. A homebound church member, one of our brothers or sisters in Christ, who would be absolutely overjoyed if we dialed just seven digits and talked to them for a little while. An estranged relative who, whether they would admit it or not, needs to hear us say to them the words, “I forgive you.” A church that needs our participation and involvement and support, because every part of the body of Christ is irreplaceable and important. Someone – anyone – we may have ridiculed or ostracized because they don’t dress like us, don’t come from the right family like us, don’t fit into our preconceived notion of what a “real man” or a “real woman” or a “real Christian” looks like.
It was Helen Keller, of all people, who said that, “The saddest thing in the world is people who can see but have no vision.” But here’s the good news, my friend. Here’s why you should not shoot the messenger. This God who reveals our blindness to us is also the same God who can help us see things clearly. If the Bible story – the whole story – is about anything, it’s about a God who helps us fill wine jars, feed the hungry, heal brokenness; love the unlovable, reach out to the needy, forgive any wrongs, embrace all people – because, through Jesus Christ, God has already done those things.
What we’ve got to do, my friends, what we absolutely must do, is make sure that we don’t get so enamored with the little vision we have that we forget how blind we are when we fail to let Jesus lead the way. When we fail to let Jesus heal us – not with spit and mud and pool water, but with conviction and repentance and transformation and grace and love. And then – and only then – can we truly sing the hymn as if it’s our story: I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind but now I see. In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.