December 13, 2017

Sermon: Light in the Midst of Religious Darkness (Lent IV)

Cardinal Emerging

SERMON: Lent IV
Light in the Midst of Religious Darkness

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

• John 9:1-41

• • •

In the chapter before our Gospel text this morning, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” and he encouraged people to follow him by walking in the light.

Today’s passage follows up on that statement with an example. In this story, we discover that it can be surprising to recognize who is truly in spiritual light and who is in spiritual darkness.

This passage pits an unfortunate man who had been born blind and had lived his adult life as a beggar with the Pharisees, the strict and respected religious leaders of Israel.

On the surface most of us, I think, would probably think that the Pharisees, who knew their Bibles backward and forward, who lived devout lives of prayer, fasting, and charity, who were the religious teachers of the people would be the ones in the light. After all, they were experts in Scripture and respected religious leaders. I don’t think many of us would assume that this poor, tragic blind man would be the spiritually astute one in the account.

At the beginning of the story, the disciples certainly saw things this way, didn’t they? “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” they asked. In their theology, if you saw someone like this blind man, it was because someone had sinned and this was the result. People who avoid sin and are blessed by God simply don’t end up like this, do they?

As usual, Jesus ignored their speculations and went to work to help the person in need. He spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, spread the mud on the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash in a nearby public pool. When the man came back, he could see for the first time in his life! The early church saw this as a reminder of our baptism. When we are washed with the waters of baptism, we arise from darkness into light; we who were spiritually blind are now given new sight.

And so it was with this man, who had known such an unfortunate life, coming not only out of blindness, but also out of spiritual darkness into the bright light of Jesus.

  • In verses 11-12, when they ask this man who had healed him, he simply said, “The man called Jesus.” He didn’t know much about it, and didn’t know where he was.
  • Then, the Pharisees ask him again. In verse 17, they say, “What do you say about Jesus?” This time, the man who had formerly been blind said, “He is a prophet.”
  • The religious leaders start to get frustrated. They go to the man’s parents and interrogate them and get nowhere, so they call him back again and get in a theological argument with him about who Jesus is. They say he must be a sinner because he broke some of their rule, but in verses 31-33 the man insists Jesus must be from God, he must be a man of worship and obedience.
  • Finally, at the end of the story, when Jesus comes back and speaks to the man personally, he acknowledges Jesus as the Son of Man, calls him “Lord,” and confesses his faith in Jesus.

Do you see the trajectory here? Out of the darkness, into the light. Step by step he comes to understand more and more and more about Jesus until he bows at his feet and says, “Lord, I believe!”

On the other hand, if you track what happens to the Pharisees throughout this story, it all goes in the opposite direction.

  • It starts when they get upset that Jesus claimed to heal someone on the Sabbath. They call him a sinner for breaking their rules.
  • Then they try to disprove that any miracle actually took place.
  • Next, they try to cast doubt on where Jesus came from and his authority to heal someone.
  • They argue with a variety of people, you can hear the level of frustration rising in their voices. They just can’t accept that something wonderful has happened and that Jesus might have done it!
  • Finally, in exasperation, they dismiss the healed man as a sinner who doesn’t know anything about spiritual things. They drive him out of their presence and it’s likely this means they kicked his family and him out of the synagogue.
  • In the end, the Pharisees walk away without any answers, more strongly opposed to Jesus than they had been before this incident.

The poor blind beggar ends up in the light. The Pharisees end up in the darkness.

The man who had lived on the margins of society, the one others considered cursed and bearing the consequences of sin, ends up healed and full of faith. The Pharisees, who practiced their religion devoutly and were considered the guardians of the true faith fail to see in the end that they are actually in spiritual darkness.

The blind one sees. By Jesus’ word he goes and washes clean and begins to walk on a path of ever-increasing light.

The ones who think they see spiritually miss Jesus entirely and show themselves to actually be in darkness.

Martin Luther and the other reformers were right, I think, in seeing what was happening in their own day in stories like these. The Church claimed to be the place where people could find the light of Christ, but it was so corrupt that it was instead an institution filled with darkness. Luther and many others made the brave attempt to unmask the darkness and shine the light of the gospel for the people of their day.

Folks, still today there are forms of religion that are dark and deadly. Whenever religious people take up the attitudes and actions that we see in the Pharisees in this story, that is a religion of darkness.

  • Whenever religious folks become more concerned about rules than loving their neighbors, that’s darkness.
  • Whenever religious folks can’t rejoice when someone is healed and made new by Jesus, even though it may not have happened by someone following all their rules and procedures, that’s darkness.
  • Whenever religious folks take the position that they are the experts and guardians of the truth, and that everyone else should listen to them and bow down to their interpretations, that’s darkness.
  • Whenever religious folks become more concerned about winning arguments than listening to their neighbors and showing them respect as people God loves, that’s darkness.
  • Whenever religious folks dismiss others and build walls around their institutions to keep those they consider “sinners” out, that’s darkness.

There is nothing deadlier or darker than spiritual pride, self-righteousness, and the failure to love others, which causes us to separate ourselves from our neighbors in the name of our religion, and worst of all, causes us to miss Jesus.

The hero in this story is not the person you might expect. It’s a poor man who was born blind, who lived for years as a beggar, who wasn’t very eloquent, who wasn’t theologically astute, and who lived on the margins of religious society. There was one thing he came to know however — once he was blind, now he could see.

And it was all because of Jesus.

In the midst of all that religious darkness, that’s where the light shone. Amen.

Comments

  1. >> ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’

    This is the same interchange as with the Woman at the Well. This is another instance of Jesus identifying himself to someone as Messiah, but in this case more circumspectly because he is now in territory where using the word “Messiah” can have dire results for both speaker and hearer. The often used phrase by Jesus referring to himself as “Son of Man” seems to cause much perplexity. One of the newer translations gives this as “Human One”, which may be a concession to the Great War Between Men and Women, but I would think when Jesus spoke it that it probably was heard as “Son of Man”. Apparently this was sometimes used to mean “human being”, but Jesus seems to use it as a title for Messiah, and one that was not commonly recognized as such, thus avoiding premature problems. This never occurred to me before and I’ll have to see if it holds true generally in other places.

  2. Brian the Grandad says:

    Amen, indeed!

  3. >> He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

    There’s that word “worship” again. Now in context of the story, what did the man actually do? Did he gather with his friends and neighbors in a specially constructed and dedicated building for an hour or more with song and ritual and a sermon and a collection? If you think about it, this must be the guy who wrote the most popular hymn in the world, “I once was blind but now I see,” so did he sing it to Jesus with his arms uplifted and eyes closed and a dreamy expression of ecstatic piety on his face? I think it means that he fell to his knees before Jesus with head bowed as an expression of submission and adoration, and probably not in this case of fear. I realize my simplistic understanding of the word “worship” as used in the Bible is not very popular, but there it is. Doubt if it will change many preacher’s minds.

    • As an introvert, I appreciate this observation, Charles. Thank you.

    • Charles, there is a personal response of worship, which is what we see here, but there is also a time when the community of faith comes together for a meeting of worship. My understanding of what this is about is captured in a post about worship as a meal gathering: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/49456.

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      My wife enjoys listening to Hispanic Pentecostal preachers on the Internet. There is one in particular she is very fond of, one that meant a lot to her when she was younger. Last night he took Hispanic Catholics to task for ‘worshipping’ images of Mary and the saints. His face got very red and his voice very altered. He appeared to me to be very angry.

      ‘This guy would accuse me of the same thing if he saw me doing Matins or Vespers’, I told my wife. He’d probably have apoplexy, since I ordinarily do prostrations before my icons. ‘No’, my wife responded. ‘You don’t worship your icons. Anybody can see that.’

      ‘I don’t think he could’, I responded.

      ‘Latin Americans are very superstitious’, she replied. ‘They don’t want to read the Bible and seek God. They want the saints to do all the heavy lifting for them [llevar la pesadez]’.

      ‘I’d rather have someone be superstitious towards the saints than ignore them altogether. Besides, I don’t think the Catholics, even ignorant ones, worship the saints, much less their images. I don’t know, really, if even Hindus worship their images. I don’t have enough information.’

      ‘So, what is worship [adoración] to you?’

      ‘When Father offers the Holy Mysteries to the Most Holy Trinity. That is our participation in Christ’s Sacrifice.’

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    Good sermon. I can’t wait until the day when the light of Jesus fills the whole earth.

  5. Christiane says:

    “The hero in this story is not the person you might expect. It’s a poor man who was born blind, who lived for years as a beggar, who wasn’t very eloquent, who wasn’t theologically astute, and who lived on the margins of religious society. There was one thing he came to know however — once he was blind, now he could see.

    And it was all because of Jesus.

    In the midst of all that religious darkness, that’s where the light shone. Amen.”

    🙂
    this, I love

  6. Robert F says:

    It was a long Gospel reading today (and last week). The pastor invited the members of the congregation to sit down if they needed, given the length of the text. The stoic German Lutherans remained on their feet, except for the few who depend on walkers. Religion is a powerful thing, as is darkness.

  7. Following up on last week, I have maintained a food fast again today until sunset, not to gain brownie points in the Book of Life, tho an article in the Babylon Bee holds that Closeness To God Linked To Constantly Telling Friends What You Gave Up For Lent. I’m not doing this for Lent, altho it was the trigger, and I hope to be doing this well beyond Lent. We’ll see. I have been in the habit as of late of following my first Sunday of the month church attendance with a Meatball Marinara Sub of the Day and that could be a problem. When I used to fast twice a week way back when, someone would always show up with some chocolate cake or some such. I’m doing this for health reasons, body and soul, not piety, and I’m also edging up on cold showers for the same reason. We’ll see about that too.