A Sermon for Immanuel Presbyterian Church
Sept. 2, 2012 — Rev. Michael S. Beates — “Drawn to the Light” (John 9)
And the audio file is located here: http://www.immanuelpca.com/media.php?pageID=5
Jesus has just had a huge theological smack down of sorts with the Pharisees where Jesus had declared them children of the devil and Himself as nothing less than the “Great I AM” – the religious people at the end of John 8 had picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy. So this encounter in chapter 9 comes on the heels of that. Though John 8 says he hid himself and left the Temple area, we can assume Jesus is still in and around Jerusalem when, as he is going along, he sees this blind man.
Now it’s helpful to remember that John organizes his book around seven signs of Jesus (he says there were many more, but seven is symbolic of perfection). For instance, the wedding at Cana, it says, was the first sign. Also, the raising of Lazarus is the final (7th) sign. This account of the blind man is the 6th of 7 signs in John – not miracles (though some translations call them “miraculous signs”). Indeed they were miraculous, but the text simply calls them signs – pointing each one in their own unique way to some aspect of Jesus’ divinity.
In this passage Jesus will, as He often does, model for us what it means to be human, and also display for us His divinity. We have much to learn from both.
1, See disabilities (v. 1)
“As He was going along, He saw a man born blind.” Don’t miss the first verb here – Jesus saw the man. The story does not begin with the disciples asking Jesus a crucial question. It begins with Jesus seeing the man born blind. And the disciples saw that Jesus saw him.
We don’t like to see disability so often do we? We have been culturally conditioned in many ways to avoid seeing, and if you do see, to ignore that which is broken in humanity. I talk a bit elsewhere about why this is – but suffice it to say, brokenness makes us uncomfortable and culturally we have done a masterful job of hiding those with disabilities, lest they gain our attention and disturb us or disrupt our well controlled, carefully planned lives. Think about the people on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan – they saw, but did not want to “see” the needy and broken one right before them. We do the same, don’t we? We try to avoid making eye contact, even as we must pass close by.
Children see. And they are not yet so inhibited (or perhaps well-conditioned) as we are, so sometimes they ask, “What wrong with him or her?” And a parent, in embarrassment, says something to the effect of, “Hush now, that’s not polite.”
But don’t miss the importance here. Jesus noticed this man. Jesus sees our broken neediness too. Our pain and loss and difficulty are not invisible to Him as they often are to our neighbors. Even when we try to hide our neediness, Jesus sees and knows our most profound wounds.
If we are to be like Jesus, sometimes, we need merely to open our eyes to see what is in front of us, but sometimes, we need, like Jesus, to see with intention, to look for, in order to see those who live with hurt and pain – but they are all around us. Some, like this man, bear conditions from birth – or from conception. Others inherit a condition that may manifest itself much later; still others, like our friend Joni Tada suffer a tragic and unalterable accident that instantly changes everything. But the point is: we need to see it. Then, . . . second,
2. Approach Disabilities (v. 2)
We are not given all the details here – we know in other places, the disciples did not want Jesus to be bothered by undesirable people – they had places to go and things to do. But I think in this case, when Jesus saw the man, He must have stopped, perhaps, if I can extrapolate, even turned aside and approached the man. I think we can say this because the disciples asked a probing question – something they did not do so often. When they observe Him “seeing” the man, probably slowing down, turning aside from His path, they only became engaged because Jesus was already engaged. Perhaps Jesus was talking with him, we don’t know – but the important thing is Jesus approached the blind man.
Jesus models for us what it means to be human – we neglect to notice but He sees. We tend to avoid, but He approaches. Is it a scary thing to do? To turn aside from our plans, to engage with someone in need? Certainly. Is it an inconvenient thing to do? Always. Is it risky? Perhaps. Costly? Probably. We are always uncomfortable when we move away from comfort toward need. But is it the human thing to do? Absolutely! And this is how Jesus is a model for us. See disability, approach disability, and as I have said before here, as we do so, we will begin to realize that we see a lot of ourselves in them! We are them!
3. See God’s purposes (v. 2-3)
So the disciples approach with Jesus and ask what they thought was the right question, the natural question. Something was wrong, so there must be a cause for what happened. This is so natural – and even though Jesus gives us an amazing insight into the heart of God in this passage, so many of us are stuck in the same mentality of the disciples. “God” we ask, “if this happened, and it’s obviously not good and right, then someone or something must have done something wrong to cause this, right?” We want to know the cause. Whose fault is it? Who’s to blame? And admittedly, sometimes there is a clear cause. Joni dove recklessly into shallow water at low tide. Not a sinful action, but a direct cause all the same. But other times, like a man born blind, it is not so simple or evident.
I remember a dear, devout, and yes, rather stupid Christian lady once asking Mary and me, “Have you confessed the sin that led to your daughter’s condition?” And I thought to myself, “Well, . . . I’m about to have a sin to confess when I am done taking care of you!”
But Jesus’ response is shocking. Rather than identifying a human cause for this man’s life long disability, Jesus says the explanation is not in some past cause or some particular sin, but the explanation laid in the future purposes of God.
So Jesus attributes this to God. Before we unpack that, let’s discuss for a minute a false dilemma that is still a common tactic of skeptics and ill-informed people to explain God’s part in such things. The construct is like this: Since bad things happen, since disability exists, then there are two options regarding God. First, God is all powerful, but since He did not stop this, we must conclude He is a heartless God who does not care. Or second, God is good, but not all powerful, otherwise, He would intervene and change things for us. This is an ancient philosophical construct, still used and in print in Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
He lays out these two options and comes down on the side of the latter. Though God is creator, and though He is good, Kushner says, God must not be all powerful or He would change things. God is in heaven rooting for us, hoping we make, and sorry that He cannot help. It is a book of despair quite frankly.
But friends, this is a false dilemma. There is in fact a third way, a tertium quid. The Scriptures affirm over and over again that God is great (all powerful) and He is good (perfectly and infinitely so). Therefore, If He does not intervene, there must be another explanation. And that is what Jesus gives us here. Neither this man, nor his parents sinned. Neither is God caught on the horns of a false dilemma. This man was born blind so the works of God might be displayed in him.
Now let’s not make another common mistake at this point. Too many well intentioned believers will say, “See, God is so powerful, He can even redeem life-long suffering.” But this can be misunderstood to mean that God is responding to the suffering, removing what was not His intention in the first place. I think some people want to get God off the hook as it were.
Hear me, . . . God does not want to get off the hook – He wants glory! Remember Exodus 4, where Moses thought he had God beat – “I’m not your man – I can’t talk well. “I am slow of tongue and speech.” God says, “Who made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute or deaf, gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I the Lord?” God does not merely respond to what we think are accidents, He creates with intentionality – and His intention is His glory. Jesus didn’t just stumble across this blind man and say, “Oops, we better fix this.” God already knows all things. There are no surprises in His mind. There are surprises for us, no doubt. In fact in our day surrounded by comfort and every possible safe guard, we have been sold this myth of control, so we are always surprised when confronted by suffering and loss. God is not. In His sovereign goodness, He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death – He does not, most often, whisk us out of harm’s way. He accompanies us into it, for His purpose: His glory!
We often think we know what the remedy needs to be. Remember the paralytic lowered through the roof? His friends thought they knew what he needed – to walk of course! But the primary need of this paralyzed man, the primary need we all share, is not physical wholeness or well-being – as good and enjoyable and as desirable as it is. In this Fallen World, our most profound need is spiritual rebirth and along with it, the healing of spiritual blindness so that we might see.
4. See the light (vv. 4-7)
So Jesus does not merely encounter the blindness and heal it – He planned the blindness for His purpose. Now, let’s be honest, in this man’s case, the purpose included healing to display God’s work, which we will see in a minute. It is not, in God’s infinite wisdom, always so. Paul prayed three times for deliverance, but God was pleased to allow a different display of His purpose in Paul, and often also in us. When Jesus healed a lame man at the pool of Bethesda, He left many others without healing. So the principle is this: our suffering, however it turns out, has meaning only as we cling to God’s purposes for us. And we see this purpose in the following verses. God’s purpose was that people would see the Light of the World in Jesus.
Ontology precedes axiology – that is “being precedes doing.” Who we are precedes what we do. In this way, though Jesus brings bread, first, He IS the bread of Life. Though He also brings light to blindness, first, He IS the Light of the World. God’s purpose was to show that His Son is the light we all need in the midst of our spiritual blindness.
There are several other sermons in between the healing and what follows, but for my purposes, let’s jump down to consider the end of this story – to see God’s ultimate purpose in this encounter with Jesus. How do we respond to this story? How does this encounter with Jesus speak to our lives? We see it at the end.
5. Embrace God’s purpose to worship the light of the world vv. 24-38
Notice here (in v. 34), the blind man has been thrown out by the religious professional who thought they knew God and His works. And don’t miss the detail here in v. 35. Jesus heard the man had been thrown out and He found him. Even after the healing, even after the display of His glory, still Jesus sought the man and found him. Why, so He could comfort the man who now sees? No, so the man could worship Jesus. Don’t miss this! The man asks who the Son of Man is so that he might believe (that is trust in) Him, Jesus says, “You have seen Him, He is speaking to you.” And the man bowed down and worshiped – and Jesus received his worship!
I am reminded here of 2 Cor. 4 – God made light shine in the darkness of our hearts so that we can see the light of the glory of the Gospel in the face of Christ! And so that we might worship Him! Even after God heals your spiritual blindness, still He seeks you, finds you so that you worship Him.
A Tolkien allusion? If I must: as the company departed the forest realm of Lorien, Lady Galadriel gave each a gift. To Frodo she gave a phial, a “star glass” Sam called it. “‘In this phial,’ she said, ‘is caught the light of Earendil’s star, . . . . It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.’” Indeed, Jesus is a light, THE Light, for us “in dark places when all other lights go out” even after we have been found by Him – sometimes especially after we have been found by Him! So, like the blind man, with new eyes to see, so we, with spiritual eyes open, fall down and worship the One who not only gives us light, but the One who IS the Light of the world. I don’t know what darkness surrounds you at the moment, or what past darkness you have passed through, nor certainly what darkness awaits. But this I know: Jesus is the light of the world, and His light will continue to shine in our darkness.
May God give us enlightenment to understand, spiritual and physical eyes to see disabilities, the courage to approach disabilities, and the grace to see God’s purpose and to live that we might worship Jesus, the Light of the World.
Jennie Bishop said:
So spellbound by this message, Dr. Beates. I have been reading your book, at first just because I respected your knowledge and your ministry to your daughter. Now I am reading it because it is for ME, and I am awed by that picture of my own brokenness and how your perspective on disability includes ALL disability—mine and your daughter’s and everyone’s all wrapped up together. This is an amazing message of hope and understanding from Jesus that I wish I would have “gotten” long ago. Thank you so much for bringing light, light, light!
Thanks Jennie — you are an encouragement to me!