Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2017
John 9:1-41 Commentary
Now I See – A Sample Sermon
It was probably the big goofy grin on his face that kept some folks from recognizing him. Oh, they’d seen him for years. But rarely had they seen him at eye level. Instead they’d long ago grown accustomed to seeing this hapless man sitting, legs akimbo, on the ground near the entrance to the farmer’s market. He had a tin cup in front of him, a white cane propped up next to him, and he stared out at the world with eyes that were clearly as dead as two pale pieces of china. He was the epitome of pathetic. He was what every pregnant woman prayed would not happen to her child. He was not the kind of person you wanted to linger over. A quick glance is about all most people managed before averting their eyes.
But now, suddenly, he’s walking around town grinning like a Cheshire cat and repeating over and over—as though a mantra—“I once was blind but now I see!” And the townsfolk stopped and stared. “Is that? No, couldn’t be. Still . . . I think that’s him.” Others chimed in, “Of course it’s not him—blind people don’t get better. It’s probably just someone who looks like him.” But the man himself put that idea to rest. “No, it really is me. I once was blind but now I see!” And as he walked along, the goofy grin got so big it practically squinted shut those eyes that were now as alive and as limpid as lake water on a clear blue day.
A big, goofy grin. I’m sure it’s the right way to picture this man. But do you know what’s heartbreaking, what’s tragic, about John 9? This man is the only one who is smiling. How can that be? A grand miracle had taken place! You’d think that everywhere you looked you’d see goofy grins, broad smiles, maybe even a few folks wiping away some tears of joy. It’s not every day, after all, that the power of God gets displayed so brilliantly. But that doesn’t happen. Instead this story is mostly about as grim and somber and serious as you can imagine. The whole thing ends up being about as cheery as reading a courtroom transcript. Why is it that no one seems able to savor the miracle?
And make no mistake: this was a very big miracle. It’s even grander than we mostly realize. For many of us, we’ve grown accustomed to reading stories about Jesus’ healing a blind person—a person who then starts walking or running around the same as anyone else. We are so accustomed to this kind of thing in the gospels that we forget how powerful such a miracle is. Because as the late neurologist Oliver Sacks once pointed out, for once-blind people to function, they need to have not just their optic hardware repaired but they need to get the necessary mental software installed, too.
The ability to see is one-part a physical phenomenon but also one-part a mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience. That’s why even today blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons—they cannot just stroll out of the hospital following surgery. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out-of-reach even as they may knock over a glass of water which is closer than they thought.
Likewise the once-blind misjudge steps and bump into walls all because they have not yet acquired the knack for interpreting visual data. Some even continue to use their white canes for a while so that they can slowly begin to connect how the world has always felt through the tip of the cane with how it now looks through their eyeballs. As it turns out, this matter of sight is a bit more complex than we might think. But that just makes Jesus’ miracle all the more marvelous!
Yet only the one man is smiling. Everyone else is deadly serious. And the reason for this is as startling as it is tragic: there were some who just didn’t want God around. Or they were OK with the idea of encountering God but then it had best be on their terms and according to their pre-conditions. For the Pharisees it was simple: “If God were here, we’d know it because he’d look just like us, act like us, and follow our rules. This Jesus fellow doesn’t fit that bill so his divine pretentions are as sinful as they are laughable.” They’d know God when they saw him and Jesus . . . well, he was not it!
It’s sobering, isn’t it, to see the contortions of the Pharisees here. They will condemn anyone, say anything, deny iron-clad facts if that’s what it takes to prop up their own views of God. If it were not so tragic, it would be really, really funny. But as it stands, the only funny thing in this story is the healed man’s goofy grin and his own contagious enthusiasm for Jesus. “I once was blind but now I see! I’ve been touched by the power of God!” When the Pharisees tell him that God had nothing to do with this, his reaction is as honest as it is accurate: “Well, OK, but if you can explain what happened to me without reference to God, I’d love to hear it! Because—and forgive me if I’ve mentioned this before—I once was blind but now I see!”
Some people are annoyingly happy. For the Pharisees, there’s just too much joy going on here and so in the end they throw this man out on his ear. If they cannot get him to stop celebrating the goodness of God, they can at least put him out of earshot.
Among the great ironies of this story in John 9 is this: both the disciples and the Pharisees try to make a connection between bad things and God. “God must have been pretty mad at someone to produce a guy like this,” the disciples say when they first see this blind beggar, “so who messed up, Lord? This fellow or his folks?”
That’s how a lot of people operate: you see something bad, you chalk it up to someone’s sin and make God out to be the one who punishes sin. The universe operates on the principle of quid pro quo, of tit for tat. Oddly, though, when the people in this story encounter the profoundly good thing of an awesome healing, they do everything in their power to not connect that good thing with God. Some, it seems, are more comfortable with making God out to be the dispenser of punishment than the decanter of something good.
Apparently it’s fully possible to be in the presence of the light of the world and still be in the dark. But if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the religious people in this story who seem the most prone to put on spiritual sunglasses to keep out the light, John 9 might be less troubling. As it stands, however, those of us who consider ourselves religious folks today have plenty of reason to wonder whether—or how often—we fail to celebrate the work of God just in case the shape of that work doesn’t fit the bill of how we think things ought to go. How often don’t we let our own scruples keep us from celebrating God’s presence in the lives of others?
It was shortly after World War II when the World Council of Churches decided to check on how its money was being spent in a remote area of the Balkans where the World Council was trying to help needy churches re-build after the war. So it dispatched Dr. John Mackie, who was at the time an officer with the WCC and the president of the Church of Scotland. Accompanying him were two other pastors, both of whom came from a fairly conservative, pietistic denomination. One afternoon they paid a visit to an Orthodox priest in a remote village. The man was clearly thrilled to receive the visit in that he otherwise worked in rather lonely isolation.
Immediately upon seating the guests in his study, the priest produced a box of fine Havana cigars and offered one to each of his three guests. Dr. Mackie gingerly took one, bit the end off, lit it, and took a few puffs, saying how fine it was. The other two pastors looked horrified. “No thank you! We do not smoke!” they quickly said.
Feeling bad that he maybe had offended the two brothers, the priest wanted to make amends and so left the room only to re-appear with a flagon of his finest wine. Dr. Mackie took a glassful, swirled it, sniffed it like a connoisseur, and then praised its fine quality. Soon he asked for another glass. Meanwhile his traveling companions drew back even more visibly. “No thank you! We do not drink!” they snapped. Well, later when the three returned to their car, the two pastors assailed Mackie. “Here you are an officer with the World Council and the leader of Scotland’s Church and yet you smoke and drink!?” “No, I don’t,” he barked at them. “But somebody in there had to be a Christian!”
“God cannot have been involved in this incident because it does not conform to our rules and patterns” the Pharisees concluded. “Disagree with us, and you’re a greasy sinner. Period. End of discussion.” That’s how the glory of God gets missed, even in the church yet today. Traditions and scruples and rubrics and books of order can make us spiritually blind just as surely as any injury to our eyes could make us physically blind. But maybe we’d smile more even as God’s people if we found ways to remain open to the endless surprises of God’s Spirit.
It’s curious, isn’t it, to notice that in John 9—so long as the wrangling and wrestling and arguing is going on in an effort to debunk the miracle that had so plainly taken place—Jesus disappears from view. From verse 7 until verse 35 the Son of God is nowhere to be seen. I don’t think it’s coincidental. The minute we start denying the work of God in Christ Jesus our Lord so as to make things neat and tidy and in conformity to how we like things done, it’s pretty tough to see the real Jesus. And it’s really difficult to generate any goofy grins over his ever-surprising and always-marvelous work.
In a memorable story, William Willimon tells us that years ago he was the pastor of a medium-sized suburban church. Every week during the church season he led the women’s Bible study group and always enjoyed the gathering of those saintly pillars of the congregation, most of whom were well into their retirement years. At one point, Mrs. Donaldson began to bring a younger woman with her to the group. Chelsea was a single mother of two children and she had come very much from the other side of the tracks, having grown up in one of the poorest parts of the city—an area riddled with crime and drugs. But she and Mrs. Donaldson had met when Mrs. Donaldson had volunteered in a local clothing ministry, and so she gave Chelsea a nice new Bible and began to take her along to Bible study, where she was warmly enfolded into the group.
One week the topic of discussion was temptation. So Rev. Willimon led the ladies in a review on the nature of temptation and how to rely on God to resist it. Then he asked that most typical of all Bible study-like questions, “Does anyone want to share a story of a time you felt tempted but were aided by God’s strength?” One kindly soul piped up to say, “Yes, Reverend, I have one. Seems last week at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket there was some confusion in the checkout aisle. They were training a new girl and, well, next thing you know there I am in the parking lot with a loaf of bread I hadn’t paid for. Now at first I thought, ‘Well, it’s not my fault and anyway it’s only 99 cents.’ But then I thought, no, that would be wrong, so I went back in and paid for it.” Everyone nodded and smiled.
Then Mrs. Jenkins said, “Last week I overheard a couple of folks sharing some gossip about someone. It just so happened that I, too, had recently heard a few juicy tidbits about old so-and-so and this was right on the tip of my tongue to say to these other people when something stopped me and I decided, no, I won’t share in this rumor mill.” More nods. More smiles.
It was quiet for a moment before Chelsea cleared her throat and said, “A couple of years ago my boyfriend and me were big into cocaine. Well, you know how that stuff messes with your head! So one day we’re in the pharmacy and my boyfriend all of a sudden decides to tell the cashier to give him all the money in the cash register. And she done it. It was like takin’ candy from a baby. So we ran out of there real fast. Then we see this 7-11 down the street a ways and he says to me, ‘Let’s knock that over, too.’ But something in me kinda snapped and I told him no. I robbed that pharmacy with you, but I’m not doing no 7-11. I was glad I resisted. Made me feel like somebody. I kind of feel like that’s when God really started working in my life.”
No one nodded this time. No one smiled. After fidgeting nervously with the cover of his Bible for a few moments, Rev. Willimon weakly said, “Yes, well, that’s rather what we’ve been talking about today. Shall we close now in prayer!” How difficult it is when real life is so surprising, so different from what we expect, so foreign to our experience.
Jesus disappears from this story when the main action is an attempt to define what God would or would not do. But once we get back to just the man with the goofy grin, Jesus re-appears from out of nowhere to ask the man such a simple question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Just point him out to me,” the man replies, “I’d love to lay these eyes on the fellow!” “It’s me,” Jesus says, and for the first time in his life, the man discovered what it is to get bleary-eyed with tears. He worshiped Jesus without hesitation, without checking in any catechism or rule book to see if worshiping this man would be an orthodox thing to do.
It’s such a moving spectacle, at least for those with eyes to see. Of course, it was totally boring to the few Pharisees still lingering on the fringes. Their steely-eyed scowls told Jesus and this man all they needed to know. But by this point in the story, even those unbelieving yahoos were not enough to overcome the joy of the last scene. And I imagine that as Jesus eventually went on his way, this man waved at him and kept on waving until Jesus finally disappeared out of sight.
As the man turned to go back home, he was no doubt tired after such an eventful day. On his cheeks you could trace the tracks of his tears of joy. And as the picture on this story now fades to black, the last thing we notice as he trudges home is that once again, the edges of his mouth are starting to curl up. Because wherever we find the real Jesus at work, there’s just no repressing all those smiles. Or as Jesus once put it, “Blessed are you who mourn now, for you will laugh!” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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