Notes from a sermon preached on the 16th November 2008 (pm)
See Comments for my reflections on the sermon
The more I’ve looked at this passage, the more its intrigued me. There’s so many ways in which to see this chapter, so much that it has to say. What’s it about.
The story starts with the disciples quizzing Jesus about a blind man they come across. This man has been blind from birth, and they want to know why this is. What is the cause of his blindness? A common understanding of the time is that suffering and sickness is as a result of sin – either the person’s sin, or their parents.
This belief continues today – it might not be vocalised, but there is this understanding that if you do good, then good things will happen to you and if you do bad… Perhaps this is a throwback to the influence of the idea of Karma from Eastern spirituality
It certainly can be true – we can become ill as a result of our actions. If you sleep around there is the danger of catching STDs. If you hold a grudge against someone, which you won’t let go, this can cause increased stress and that in turn can affect you physically and so on. The Bible also teaches us that sickness and suffering entered the world as a result of sin – the curse of Genesis 3.
So, what about this man? Why was he ill? Was it something he had done? Because he was born this way, was it something that his parents had done?
Jesus’ reply cuts through their concepts. ‘This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’. Notice what is isn’t saying though – he’s not saying that sickness is never caused by one’s sin, nor is he saying that sickness is also there so that God’s glory may be shown. Jesus, here and elsewhere, refused to be drawn into simplistic theories about the nature and cause of suffering – a warning that we shouldn’t either. Instead, he takes each person as an individual, and treats them as they need. This is a great pastoral lesson for us – it is so easy to try and argue problems away or come up with glib answers, but life is rarely so simple. If we make generalisations, we shall run the risk of missing what is the problem in an individual case, and depersonalise them.
Some of you may wonder why I wear a red ribbon on my guitar strap. I first got it when Freddie Mercury died of AIDS in exchange for a donation towards research into AIDS and HIV. When I wore it to church one day I was shocked by the response it got. I ought be careful I was told about wearing that in Christian circles, because AIDS was God’s judgement on homosexuals. I was stunned by this well-being statement – especially in light of the subsequent spread of AIDS across Africa where it has little to do with homosexual practises at all! I wear it now as a protest against this view but also to remind me to treat people as individuals and to not leap to broad generalisations and judgements.
Having challenged their beliefs like this, Jesus spat on the ground, made some mud paste and applied it to his eyes, telling him to go and was it off at the pool of Siloam. He does this, and miraculously is healed! His healing has so dramatic and so complete that those who are his neighbours, and those who pass him by everyday, aren’t convinced that he’s the same bloke!
But is this man’s renewed sight what this chapter is really all about? Most of the chapter doesn’t focus on him as the main character. In fact a great deal more is said about the activities of the Pharisees.
You see, Jesus’ actions were troubling. Of course healing someone is a good thing – but does the end justify the means?
The healing was done on the Sabbath, the day of rest. This was not good.
To heal, Jesus kneaded the mud on the Sabbath. That was considered work. Also not good.
He also applied the mud to the man’s eyes. Again, that’s work. Definitely not good.
In three ways, Jesus had acted against the understanding of how you should obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, as a day of rest. This created a crisis for them. If they had got it right, then Jesus was not honouring the Sabbath – in other words, he was breaking the Ten Commandments. If he was breaking the Ten Commandments in such a blatant way, then how could what he was doing come from God? Alternatively, perhaps they had got their understanding of the Commandments wrong – if he had done such a miraculous sign, then surely he had to be from God!
To try and get to the bottom of it, they called upon the man to talk to him about what had happened. Then they summoned his parents and then they talked to the man once more.
It’s fascinating to trace two journeys that are going on here.
To begin with all the man can say is that this man’s name was Jesus. Hen when the Pharisees first question him about the healing, all he does is describe what Jesus did. He doesn’t offer any evaluation of Jesus at all. There are no superlatives, no celebrations, just a description – ‘he put mud in my eyes, I washed and now I see’
At this point the Pharisees have quite a mixed view of Jesus. They are divided as to whether or not he is a good man.
Then in verse 17, they decide to ask the man about what he thought about Jesus. His reply is simple – ‘he is a prophet’. He’s beginning to realise what this man who healed him was.
The Pharisees don’t find this satisfying – it doesn’t really resolve their quandary, as they want it to. What do you do when you ask for advice and you get the answer you don’t want? You go and ask someone else, and keep on asking until you get it! They call on his parents, and try and persuade them into telling them more. They’re not prepared to say more – we’ll come back to that later. Instead all they’ll say is that he couldn’t see, but now he can, and they really ought to talk to their son – after all, he was the one who had been healed and he was old enough to answer for himself!
And so they go back to the man again. I sense now that they’re getting fed up – and to be honest have made up their mind. ‘Give glory to God!’ they declare ‘we know this man is a sinner!’
I don’t know about you, but that declaration sounds like self-contradictory to me. ‘Give glory to God!’ doesn’t sound like an invitation to tell the truth. It sounds like a demand to pull the party line. Give glory to God by agreeing with his leaders that this man is a sinner. Give glory to God by denying his Son!…
The position of these Jews is hardening by the minute, and their angry interrogation is forcing the man to examine his own position, and as he evaluates what has happened under their questioning, it becomes more and more clear in his mind who this Jesus is. I love the next bit so much, I’m just going to read it again!
24A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,[a]” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
28Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
As the man talks about his healing, his eyes are opened to the fact that Jesus is of God. You could say he his spiritual blindness is healed. At the same time, his Jewish interrogators travel on a journey the opposing way, becoming increasingly to stubborn to be able to admit that there is the slightest possibility that Jesus could be of God. They become blinded by their own arrogance and theology.
This journey challenges me no end.
As an evangelical Bible College student, I like to think I have a good grasp of what the Bible says about God. I have a fair understanding of what he wants from us too. I’d even go as far as saying I have a reasonable framework with which to weigh up things that I hear and experience to determine if they are of God or not.
But every now and then things happen that don’t fit.
God and Politics
Debates around homosexuality, euthanasia, and so on.
Times when I’ve been pushed to reconsider what I thought God was saying on these matters. Times when I’ve had to examine why I believe what I believe, and to ask again is my belief right.
There have been times when I’ve found myself rejecting people from being the sort of people that God could use.
It’s so easy to become like these Pharisees and believe we’ve seen it all, and got it wrapped. And yet Jesus instead calls us to humility. It’s okay to have a good idea about what you believe in. In fact I would encourage you to study, to read the Bible to pray and work through what you believe. But the challenge is to remain humble in our beliefs, to not hold them so tightly that we refuse to listen and watch, to re-evaluate them. You see, the risk is that not only do we miss out on what others can bring into our lives, not only might we be getting things wrong (and maybe even hurting others as a result) but we might also be missing out on God being at work in our lives and communities. He might be there right in front of our eyes, and we might miss him. This is surely the worst kind of blindness.
There’s a choice here, a decision to be made. This man in the story is left nameless for a reason. He’s EVERYMAN, he represents us all – he could be anyone of us. Jesus,
‘was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ (John 1:10-12)
Are we willing to see him, or shall we let ourselves be blinded. I mentioned earlier that I would come back to the parents and their response to the Pharisees. Something strange is going on there. They refuse to say anything much to the Pharisees as they are scared of being thrown out of the synagogue if they side with Jesus. Whilst its not impossible that some local synagogues had decided by this stage that they should excommunicate those who followed Jesus, it wasn’t that common until much later. Some suggest that perhaps the parents were afraid of what would be thought of them, but as John writes, he puts the fears of those he is writing to in their thoughts. John was writing so that people in his day would come to faith in Jesus – and for these there was a real fear of persecution. Its not just our traditions and beliefs that can blind us to Jesus, but peer pressure and fear too. Maybe John is warning them that they run the risk of missing Jesus, just as the Pharisees did.
This brings a new way of seeing the last section of the passage too. The man gets thrown out of the synagogue for sticking up for Jesus, and hearing this Jesus tracks him down. The formerly blind man gets to see his Saviour for the first time. Their chat ends with a wonderful climax, the announcement by the man that he believes, followed by his throwing himself at Jesus’ feet in worship. His eyes have been fully opened!
If John is writing this with his peers in mind, what is he saying here?
Verse 16 tells us that the miracle is a sign – it points to something. It points to who Jesus is.
In this story he is pointed to as a prophet – one coming with God’s authority, speaking his will.
He is pointed to as one who can heal the blind – a sign of the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Chosen One.
In that last conversation, Jesus is pointed to as the Son of Man – the one to whom God gives authority over all nations.
He is pointed to as the one by whom all will be judged through their responses to him.
The Pharisees declared, ‘As for this man (v.29) we don’t know where he comes from. The answer is clear – God.
But the amazing message for Johns readers – ourselves included – is that although placing our faith in him doesn’t mean and end to suffering – in the difficult times, this very same Saviour comes and seeks us out and stands by us.