John 9 / Lent 4A / 03 April 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Religion can make you blind. That may sound strange in church coming from the pulpit, but that’s the gist of our Gospel reading this morning. Religion can blind you to who Jesus is and what salvation is all about.
There was a man who was blind from birth. And immediately there is the speculation. Who sinned, this man or his parents? This is how religion thinks. Someone has to have done something to deserve this. There is a hard “if A then B” correlation. The man was blind from birth, so someone had to have sinned. The thinking infects Jesus’ own disciples who ask the question. It infects us as well. We have this notion that God works on a quid pro quo basis. Specific sin gets specific punishment. When bad things happen, someone has to have sinned in this religious calculus.
Jesus’ answer is surprising. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. His blindness is something entirely different. God didn’t cause it, but God is going to use it. God is the great Opportunist who uses everything to His glory, “that the work of God might e displayed in his life.” So we never get a reason as to why this man was born blind, just as we never get an answer to most of the why questions we ask. Rather, Jesus pushes to the faith point: This happened so that God’s work might be manifest. God is going to do something good; He’s going to make good out of bad, which is His specialty.
Jesus then says one of his “I AM” sayings which link Him to the name Yahweh, I AM. “I am the light of the world.” And then spits on the ground, kneads some mud out of the wet clay and anoints the man’s eyes. That’s right. Anointed. Christened the man’s eyes with mud. Doing the Creator thing. God made man out of mud in the beginning, and now Jesus, the Creator in the Flesh, fixes what was wrong with a dab of mud to the eyes. Here’s mud in your eyes, so to speak. And then Jesus tells the man with mud in his eyes to go to the pool called “Sent” and wash his muddied eyes. And guess what? He comes back seeing. And Jesus is nowhere to be seen.
“I once was blind, but now I see.” The story has baptismal overtones. We are born blind, spiritually speaking. Blind to God. We cannot see God for who He is, and therefore we cannot see ourselves for who we are. We are born groping in a spiritual darkness. The Light who is Christ shines upon us, but without the eyes of faith, we can’t see it. We’re blind. God must touch our eyes and wash them in water to which He sends us, the Shiloam waters of Holy Baptism, wherein we are granted the eyes of faith, new eyes, recreated, reborn, renewed eyes. Washed by water and the Word with the Spirit, we are given to see Jesus for who He actually is and what He does for us.
Jesus did this on a Sabbath day. You wonder sometimes, if He couldn’t have done these things on a Friday or a Sunday. Why the Sabbath day? It isn’t, as some suggest, that Jesus is a Sabbath breaker. He isn’t by any stretch. He’s always in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and I’m sure that a lot of those meals that He ate with tax collectors and “sinners” were Sabbath meals. Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly, in both letter and sprit. What He didn’t keep and literally ran roughshod over were the religious traditions that arose around the Sabbath like weeds around a fine rose. The Pharisees had 32 kinds of work you couldn’t do on the Sabbath. One of them was kneading clay. It had to do with making bricks, but in a pharisee’s religious world, simply spitting on the ground, making a dab of mud and putting it into the eyes of a blind man was kneading clay and therefore work.
So Jesus winds up scoring a kind of three point shot with this miracle. He heals a blind man. He reveals Himself to be the Creator. And He gets to tweak the Pharisees and their Sabbath rules. Not bad for a Sabbath day’s work.
Of course, there’s an investigation. Are you surprised? The haul the man born blind into the synagogue. First, they don’t believe it was Jesus who did the miracle because in their eyes He violated the rules of Religion. What does he think of Jesus? Jesus healed on the Sabbath, so from their point of view, He’s a Sabbath breaker, a sinner. If you stop and think about it, this is utter nonsense. Their rules parse out this way. God only works through people who keep the Law. Jesus broke the Law. Therefore, God can’t be working through Him. Therefore, it could not have been Jesus who did the miracle. The man must have been mistaken. But the man keeps on insisting it was Jesus who put mud in His eye, sent him to the pool called Sent, and his suddenly worked for the first time in his life.
Failing there, they call in the man’s parents. Maybe it’s another guy, a look-alike. Perhaps he hadn’t been born blind after all. But no, it’s the man and yes, he was born blind, but they have no idea how he came to see, and they don’t want to talk about it either, because they’ve heard that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be kicked out of the synagogue.
Not only is Religion blind, it’s stubborn. Resistant. The decision has already been made against Jesus; never mind the evidence. He doesn’t play by the rules so He can’t be the Christ, and anyone who says He is, gets kicked out of the Religion club. So not wanting to have their religion cards revoked, the man’s parents just do what most of us do and that’s keep quiet.
A second time, they call the man in, put him under oath, and demand that he deny Christ. They want to hear the story again because liars never tell the exact same story twice. But the man’s story not only checks out, but he gets it. “If Jesus were not from God, He could do nothing.” So the Pharisees, being the great leaders of religion that they are, remind the man that he was born in utter sin (presumably because he was born blind), they insult him, and then kick him out of the synagogue.
How blind Religion can be! They can’t see Jesus through their rules of how things ought to be. They are so focused on their rules, they are blind to the Light that is shining on them from above. It’s like walking around at high noon with your hands over your eyes and insisting that it’s midnight.
And when I say “Religion does this,” I’m speaking also to us as “religious people,” which isn’t necessarily a good thing. When people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” they usually mean something like I’m favorable to God things but I just can’t deal with God people. And who can really blame them? There are ways of being religious that get in the way of seeing Jesus. For example, when it’s all about you and not about Jesus. When all you can talk about is your faith, your believing, your this, and your that, that’s getting in the way of Jesus.
Or when we speak of the church, the church, the church but never about Jesus. It’s like the modern wedding where it’s all about the bride who comes down the aisle and everyone forgets about the groom who slips in the side door. It’s all about the church and her splendor and her glory and her wisdom and her rules. And we forget about her Lord, her Head, her Bridegoom. We obscure Jesus. And there are always rules, rules, and more rules because Religion is always about the rules. And if you don’t keep the rules, then it’s not supposed to work.
Jesus operates in complete freedom of all that. Yes, there are God’s laws, and He keeps them perfectly in both spirit and letter. But He won’t be led around on a leash by religious rules and the man born blind is the prime example. He was not blind because of his sin or his parents’ sin. He was blind because he was born into a fallen world in which God’s wonderful design and order is disrupted by the chaos of sin. Yes, the man was conceived and born utterly sinful, as the Pharisees themselves were, as you and I are. But ironically, their religious rules prevented them for seeing their own sinful condition and from seeing Jesus for who He was for them.
Jesus hears about the man, how he got kicked out of the religious country club and had his dining room privileges revoked, and so He goes and finds the man. Notice that Jesus has to find the man. The man can’t find Jesus, because even though his eyes work and he can see, he’s never actually laid eyes on Jesus and has no idea what Jesus looks like. Seeing is not believing.
“Do you believe in the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Christ who is to come?” “Who is he,” the man answers, “that I may believe in Him.” “You’ve seen Him and He’s speaking to you.” Speaking to you. Did you hear that? Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing. It’s Jesus speaking that causes faith and the man born blind confesses it. “Lord, I believe.”
Seeing is not believing. The man’s eyes worked, but he needed the word to believe. And yet believing is seeing. The Pharisees did not believe, and even though they could see the miracles Jesus did and they could see Jesus with perfect 20/20 vision, they would not believe. They covered their eyes to the Light that was shining on them. The miracle was not so much for the man. He’d lived his whole life without sight. He’d adapted to a world he couldn’t see. And when he got his sight, he wound up losing his religion.
The miracles was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Jesus made an example out of him to show that when it comes to sin we do not live in a simple cause and effect world, that it was not this man’s sin or his parents’ sin that caused his blindness. It was just sin in general, the fallenness of this world, the corruption and decay that has come on all things. And yet, it was a sign of the new age that had come when “the eyes of the blind would be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.”
You are part of this too. You cannot now see Jesus, the Light of the world, at least with your eyes. In fact, the sight of Him would blind you. But you can hear Him speaking to you in His word of forgiveness, in your Baptism, in His Supper. Jesus speaks to you and in hearing Him you see Him through the eyes of faith, the Light that has been shining on you and on the whole world. Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light the darkness cannot overcome, the Light that brings life to all.
Hear Him, and with the man born blind confess Him. “Lord, I believe.”
In the name of Jesus,