A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor , Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
March 30, 2014
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 23:1-6; John 9:1-41
Mud and light don’t seem to go together, do they? Mud and light. It was one of his more, shall we say, earthy miracles that Jesus performed the day he spit on the ground, made mud, and then pressed it to the vacant eyes of the man born blind. Who would have thought? Mud and light.
John, the writer of the fourth gospel, has been busy putting together a group of stories that portray Jesus as the Light of the World, and this story, found only in his gospel, culminates his efforts. Still, what a strange way for Jesus to do such a thing. Mud and light. Who would have thought it?
The reason for Jesus’ performing this miracle does not elude us so much. He did such things everywhere he went, evidently in an effort to reveal here on earth how things are in heaven… where there is no such thing as blindness, lameness, demon-possession, leprosy. You name it… wherever he went, Jesus put things back the way God wants them to be, the way things are, in the kingdom of heaven. What he did, everything he said, was consistent with how it is in God’s in-breaking kingdom.
How he did it… well, that’s a different matter. There is no established or predictable pattern to Jesus’ behavior. The gospel stories reveal that he responded to each individual on the basis of their greatest need, whatever that might have been. For the man born blind, he needed to see… obviously. What we will discover, as the story unfolds in different ways, is that he was given the ability to see, not only physically, but spiritually as well.
We know how Jesus did it. Why exactly, well that may just be a different story. Spitting onto the dirt, making mud, pasting the man’s eyes with it… that’s how Jesus confronted the man and his need. Very strange indeed. Why do you think Jesus did it this way? As you might imagine, I have a theory.
Jesus knows he is surrounded by the Pharisees and other religious leaders who are keeping a wary eye on him, his disciples, and their activities. Every person Jesus encounters within their sight or earshot gets a third-degree grilling from the Pharisees and/or other religious authorities. The Pharisees are finding it more and more difficult to confront Jesus, so they start a new tack. They question those who have been affected by Jesus’ amazing ability to restore them to a full life. If they can’t trap Jesus, perhaps they can get others to incriminate him.
It seems the gospel writers work overtime to cast the Pharisees in a negative light. Perhaps the Pharisees get most of the ink because they do so much to undermine Jesus’ authority and popularity with the people.
Part of that may have had to do with Jesus’ flaunting of the rules. He did such things on a regular basis, you know, such things as healing on the sabbath, keeping company with suspect people. And he ate without first washing up. Take the spit and the dirt for example. That would have been disgusting to those who worked overtime in maintaining their cultic cleanliness… which, of course, is what the Pharisees spent so much of their time and effort in doing. Washing for them was not a matter of hygiene, as we have mentioned before, but of insuring their ritual purity. Dirt and spit did not factor into their way of doing things.
As we all know, not only have we had a particularly harsh winter in regard to the weather, but the flu season was also difficult to bear. As I understand it, we had a record number of flu-related deaths this year, and not just among our senior population. Young people were affected by it as well.
What does the medical community tell us? In addition to getting a flu shot, wash your hands, don’t put your hands in your mouth, wash your hands, don’t touch your eyes, wash your hands. Don’t eat anything without… what? Washing your hands. Well, in the winter, what does washing your hands result in? Dry, chapped skin, that’s what. It seems I used more hand lotion this winter than ever before in my lifetime because I washed so often. You may have done the same.
The Pharisees who stalked Jesus must have had the most chapped hands in the land! They were constantly washing, again, not to be clean or to ward off the flu, but to make sure they were spiritually pure. Jesus, in turn, called them “whited sepulchres,” clean on the outside but contaminated and decaying and rotten on the inside.
As soon as Jesus performed the miracle, or “sign” as John likes to call it, the Pharisees are called in by the neighbors to question the poor, unsuspecting man who was born blind but now, through the earthy touch of the Nazarene, has been given his sight. Can you imagine… this man has never seen anything or anyone in all his life. He’s never been able to look up into a bright, blue sky and see it for its natural beauty, or to witness the changing of the seasons. He can feel the thunder but not see the lightning. He’s not watched the song bird in the bush nearby; he can only listen to its throaty melody. He can only guess what the color red might be like, or gaze into the face of a woman to whom he might otherwise be attracted. Everything has been dark and black.
One day a man touches his eyes with mud, tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam, and when he follows these instructions, miracle of all miracles, he receives his sight. And the first thing he sees are his suspicious “friends” and the condemning Pharisees who stand before him giving him the third degree!
The Pharisees don’t seem to be surprised nor excited about the man receiving the ability to see after all these years. If you had been there, wouldn’t you have been happy for him? Wouldn’t you have offered up an alleluia or two? “Praise the Lord!” would surely have been our refrain.
When we were living in Trumann, the mother of Tim’s best friend contracted lung cancer. She had been a smoker years before, but had given it up. We did not know if that had anything to do with it, but now it had come on her with a vengeance. They would schedule surgery as soon as possible, but frankly, given the history of such things, there really wasn’t a lot of hope that the procedure would contain the disease.
Just before the surgery was to be performed, further tests were called for… and more tests and then more tests. Every test produced the same result: the tumor, once so large, so ominous, so deadly, was gone. Just… gone. Her surgeon, a devout Christian, said there was only one possible answer: it was a miracle. It wasn’t as if they thought they had seen a tumor on her lung. They had the original x-rays to prove it. There was a tumor on her lung, and now it was no more.
Did we, her friends, accuse her of doing something wrong? Of course not. Did we question her and put her through the third degree? No! Did anyone accuse the surgeon of malpractice? What do you think? We rejoiced in her good fortune and praised God for his mercy and grace toward her and her family.
But this is not how things were in Jesus’ day and time. The accusing Pharisees have one agenda and one only: to keep Jesus from promoting his agenda. “Where is he?” they want to know, referring to Jesus. And the man answers truthfully, “I do not know.”
At first, I did not plan to read the entire account recorded in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel. It’s so long, and has so many different facets to it I didn’t think I could do justice to it in one sermon. I’m still not sure about that, by the way… doing justice to this story, that is. I once did a series of sermons from this narrative, if for no other reason than there are so many twists and turns to it. But I finally decided to read it all today because it portrays the give-and-take between Jesus and the man, and the man and the Pharisees.
Even his parents are drawn into the debate by the inquiring religious authorities, to the point they do some washing of their own… washing their hands of their son and this whole affair, out of fear they’ll be thrown out of the temple. It is really quite pathetic when you think about it, that they would not support their son in all this. But it is also very telling in revealing the stranglehold the religious authorities had on the people in that place and time. Back-and-forth it all goes, showing that while they can see physically, the people who are truly blind in this story are those who refuse to see Jesus for who and what he is, what he is capable of doing, how he changes lives.
You see, blindness is not always physical. And more often than not, those who are blind and cannot see the spiritual realities that surround them are the very ones who think they see perfectly. They are the ones who are so sure about everything. “I came into this world for judgment,” Jesus says near the end of this story, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (John 9:39).
You can hear that as either a threat or a promise. It depends on how you choose to… are you ready for this?… see it. If your vision enables you to recognize how very little you do see, or understand, when it comes to faith, then there is hope in what Jesus had to say. Our willingness to continue the journey of exploring the presence and the ways of God’s being in our world is based on our understanding of how little we understand. So we keep searching and asking and praying and doing, hoping in all of this that God has his guiding hand on who we are and what we do. At the least, it causes us to pay attention, another lesson Jesus gives us. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said. “Consider the lilies of the field.” Look, look, look. More importantly, see, see, see.
But if you think you already have the answers to this journey of life and faith, then you grope around in your own self-appointed darkness because there is nothing new to learn or experience. The birds of the air become a nuisance and the lilies of the field look like weeds.
Jacques Lusseyran lost his sight at the age of seven in an accident at school. He turned his lack of vision into a gift, enabling him to “see” in ways that otherwise he might not. In January of 1944 the Nazis captured Lusseyran and shipped him to Buchenwald along with 2,000 of his French countrymen. It was there he made new discoveries about himself. If he started feeling hatred toward his captors, his world turned darker and became much smaller. When he let himself become consumed with anger he started running into things, slamming into walls and tripping over furniture.
However, when he caught himself and managed to let go of his anger and hatred, the space both inside and outside of him opened up so that he found his way and moved with ease again. The most valuable thing he learned was that no one could turn out the light inside him without his consent. Even when he lost track of it for a while he knew where he could find it again.1
Those of us who can see often take such a wonderful gift for granted. But have you ever considered that it might be a hindrance as well… when it gives us, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, the “cheap confidence that one quick glance at things” can tell us fully what they are, when it distracts us from the light that God gives us inwardly in our hearts, when it fools us into thinking that we have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road takes us, of who is right and who is wrong.2
That doesn’t mean we should want to be blind, but that we see, as much as possible, with Jesus’ eyes and not just our own. You see, there is a light that shines brightly even in – especially in – the deepest darkness. And when that Light invades our hearts and fills them with the presence of God, we see in ways we never experienced before. And of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Lord, open our eyes that we might see… your presence in our world, the grace that comes to us through others, the redemptive mercy you give us in your wonderful creation. Help us to walk with you while taking the hands of those we meet, that they might see along with us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, “Light Without Sight: A Different Way of Seeing, The Christian Century, March 24, 2014.