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A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 9:1-41

March 30, 2014

I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14

It’s a simple story really. A man was born blind at birth and Jesus saw him and did something about it. But the story doesn’t end there. It goes on and on and on because people all around him couldn’t figure out what they just saw with their own eyes.

They treated him as just another objectified person with no real feelings of his own. No one believed him. No one saw him as a fellow human being. Even the disciples failed to see him as a person; they talked about him as if he was not really there. Even as they stood above him, they asked Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

The story only appears to be simple because even as Jesus healed the man by spitting into the dirt and rubbing his eyes, blindness became epidemic as everyone around him went sightless by failing to see what really happened to the man.

The extended story is so long (41 verses), it takes up an entire chapter in John’s gospel. The simple story is really neatly contained in the first 12 verses but the simplicity of the story gets incredibly complicated as Jesus dealt with the complexities of a blindness of a different kind.

I

It’s been two decades now since the Vatican quietly released its report of acceptance of the theory that drove Copernicus to shame and censure. That’s right, in 1992, the Vatican finally recognized Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

Thomas Kuhn, in his famous work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, tells how ancient astronomers tracked the movements of the stars in the night sky.[1] They observed how the courses of some planets in the sky were highly erratic. The planets and stars would occasionally reverse direction; then, later they would reverse again.

The astronomers developed a theory to explain such odd movements. This theory became known as “Ptolemaic astronomy” and it was the dominant truth that gave coherence to what was observed by watching the night sky. The theory was so longstanding, so well adopted, so ingenious in its explanation, that it wasn’t considered a theory at all. It was an unshakable truth. It was their view of reality itself. And it was totally wrong!

Well, obviously it was not totally wrong. They were right in their observations of the movements of the heavenly bodies as they crossed the night sky. But they were wrong in what they did with that information. Their judgments were wrong because they were based on a faulty assumption. Namely, they were based on the thought that the earth was the center of the universe.

Along came Copernicus in 1514 with the theory that it was not the earth, but the sun that anchored our solar system and that the earth was in a circular track of its own circling the sun. He was persecuted harshly for saying it and was afraid to publish his thoughts. Galileo, who followed him and built his ideas on Copernicus’ theory, was forced to renounce his version of celestial reality.

This simple failure of falsely interpreting the data ran deeper than it seems on the surface because it was based on such a profoundly wrong assumption. When Copernicus’ theory challenged the old way of thinking it caused a revolution. It not only caused a scientific revolution, but it also caused a theological revolution by challenging the dominant thinking that the earth was at the center of God’s creation. Subsequently, it became a cosmic lesson in self-centeredness. It just seemed wrong to the story of creation that humankind was not the center of all God’s mighty creation.[2]

II

The man born blind from birth lived in a darkness of sight. The story tells it simply as Jesus took the man by the hand and created a mud pie out of his own spit and rubbed the man’s eyes and told him to go wash his face. That was a blindness of the first order. For whatever medical reason, the man could not see.

What this story uncovers is that this simple man was surrounded by those who couldn’t see what was right in front of them. The truth was as plain as the hand in front of their eyes and they still refused to see truthfully.

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks tells the story of a music school professor with a debilitating vision problem.[3] Dr. P, as Sacks identifies him, could see details, but he could not recognize patterns; he could not make sense out of the visual facts that he saw. He saw the details but he couldn’t piece together the patterns they made. He could see on someone’s face their nose, their eyes, their chin and their hair, but he couldn’t put all that together to see their face as a whole as most of us easily observe. In short, he suffered from prosopagnosia, a form of face blindness.[4]

Maybe that’s what was going on in this story. The Pharisees and even the disciples of Jesus simply couldn’t put it all together about who he was. They were “as blind as bats” we might say. Simpletons who wouldn’t let go of their old world thinking so they could receive the new facts for what they were.

III

The blindness of the first order was the man’s physical blindness. He had eyes that could not receive the reflected images of the lighted world and assimilate them in his brain as an image that mirrored the physical world around him.

Even as the story of his healing is told, at that very moment, many of those around him were struck blind with a blindness of the second order. It was an epidemic that struck those most familiar with him with a blindness that caused them to deny the very truth that stood before them.

It could be true of any of us. It happens often in families whenever anyone makes an effort to change. A new reality dawns and those closest to the one changed immediately fail to see and recognize the newness that’s emerged.

It’s true for any alcoholic who tries to get help. What’s been learned in the treatment of alcoholism is that in order for an alcoholic to get their freedom, the entire family has to be included in the treatment. Many alcoholics who receive individual treatment return to family systems so accustomed to treating them like an alcoholics that they subtly pressure them into relapse.

Maybe that’s what’s going on in this story. This man is helped and transformed. His old world of darkness makes one last sunset and the light of a new day dawns on him at last. But the darkness of that old familiar world settled in on all his friends and you can almost hear him say in repeated frustration, “I can’t explain it any more … this one thing I know …once I was blind and now I see.”

A man who has never seen the faces of his friends or family, the smiles of children, a sunset or a brilliant night sky, finally sees! But when he comes back a healed man, no one celebrates with him. Instead, they ignore him and the new truth about him and begin to analyze this miracle. They try desperately to retrofit this story so that it’ll fit their old worldview.

“One thing I know …” How is that for ironic understatement? No one believes him and the man is cast out of the synagogue and cut off from the Torah. He’s cut off from his family, the sweet-smelling incense of the Sabbath, and the certitude of the Law. By the end of the tale, he’s victimized one last time … all for looking deeply and directly into the Light.[5]

Jesus took this occasion in answering the question about the reason for the man’s blindness and he pointed us to the Light. Jesus calls us all out of our own darkness in order to proclaim the Light. We are transformed people, just like that blind man.

“This one thing I know …” said the man who received his first light. In spite of the darkness of everyone around him, this man could now see. Those who have their sight are called to carry the light to the world of darkness. A day is coming when we won’t have the opportunity to share the light of Jesus. Share it now. Share it freely. Share it with the conviction of someone who can testify like the blind man who gets his first look at the world and says simply, “this one thing I know.”

[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962

[2] Illustrations from Larry Bethune, Blind Bats and Dim Bulbs, University Baptist Church, Austin, TX, 3/21/93

[3] Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Summit Books, 1985

[4] Prosopagnosia (Greek: “prosopon” = “face”, “agnosia” = “not knowing”), also called face blindness, is a cognitive disorder of face perception where the ability to recognize faces is impaired.

[5] Adapted from Richard Lischer, “Acknowledgment,” The Christian Century, 3/3/99, 245

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