(A sermon for Lent 4A April 3, 2011 John 9:1-41)
I spent most of this week banging my head against John 9:3.
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
I talked with anyone who would listen about this one verse out of 41. I went to bed thinking about it and woke up the next morning still mad at the second part of Jesus’ sentence.
Now, I love the first part. The disciples ask Jesus a question that could have been on anyone’s mind in first century Judea. According to the legalistic leaders of the faith, any physical disability or visible illness meant someone had committed a sin. Since the man had been blind from birth—and it’s not clear how the disciples would have known this little fact—but since he had been blind from birth, it left the question open, in their minds.
Who committed the sin? The man or his parents?
It may seem foolish to us to hear them ask if a child might have sinned before birth, but the famous Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau striving together in the womb suggested the idea that even before birth, we could be up to no good.
Who sinned? The man or his parents?
Thankfully, Jesus lays that one to rest immediately. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Good! I like that! I’m with Jesus on that one. But here’s where I started to bang my metaphorical head against the text. Instead of being grateful that it’s not about their sin, I got hung up on what Jesus meant about the man being born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.
I didn’t like this because it sounded like a claim that God set the man up to be blind just to place him there for Jesus to meet. Because it’s one thing to be blind for a cameo appearance in the gospel, and it’s another to live a life actually being blind in a world that assumes your blindness equals to sin on someone’s part, a world that therefore leaves you literally on the side of the road, begging.
So I lost the chance, for most of this week, to be excited about the way Jesus gives it to the Pharisees.
On that day, in a crowd of people, they ask a man to account for his own miraculous healing. They ask question after question. They have their own agenda. The Pharisees needed to prove Jesus is a sinner, but every point these scholarly authorities try to make is turned back by a man who until that very day was a blind beggar on the side of the road, a marginalized person turned away even by his family, because to stay in the community, the parents had to play along with the idea that their child was the one who sinned.
It’s easy to understand why they’re disturbed. In John’s gospel, Jesus begins his public life by trashing the Temple, turning over the tables and causing a riot. He’s been under suspicion from the time the action began. He talks to people who are out of bounds and feeds huge crowds with a little boy’s lunch and heals people on the Sabbath and makes people wonder whether the religious leaders really have any authority or not, because they see this man bringing people into community instead of shutting them out of it.
It’s good stuff, the way Jesus debates them, but I could not get past verse 3. I went out into the world and talked about this verse with other pastors of multiple denominations. I complained about it on the Internet. I demanded explanations and refused to accept them, although most, if not all, were perfectly reasonable interpretations.
I lived in my own blindness, which could also be identified as my willful stubbornness. A smart person would have thought of looking at the rest of the story.
It’s possible several smart people actually advised this.
I took my complaints to Twitter, that odd stream of consciousness form of social media in which people write statements that contain no more than 140 letters and spaces, 140 characters. We’re out there talking to each other about God in a community that has no pews or walls or hymnals, only the Word of scripture and the words we type.
This week I got an answer from Jesus.
I believe my own willful stubbornness will play a part in this week’s sermon about Jesus and the Man Born Blind.
You see, I had made the connection that blindness takes many forms. It’s obvious, if you read on past verse 3 that Jesus heals the man but is more interested in the spiritual blindness besetting all the people he meets.
He says it as plain as day in verse 39:
“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
And he reinforces it in verse 41:
“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
I couldn’t get there, though, because I was complaining to anyone who would listen about the causal implications of verse 3 and feeling irritated about the way we might hear this description of God, and worse, the possibility that God might actually operate that way.
Then, imagine it, there came a response from Jesus—well, not Jesus, but someone on the Internet using the Twitter nickname JesusofNaz316 and employing what they believe to be Jesus’ rhetorical flourishes.
And he, or she, because who really knows, wrote back to me:
Who sinned that you were born stubborn?
It’s true, I am stubborn. I hold tight to things. But I am teachable, eventually. I got the reference to verse 2. “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?” And I saw what was happening.
I wrote back to him: No one. I hear it was so God’s works might be revealed in me.
Finally I saw it. I was born stubborn, blindly and blindingly stubborn, so that God’s works might be revealed in me. We each have innate characteristics, and we also have inherent qualities, some of which may work against our understanding, our seeing. But however we were born, God’s works can be revealed in us.
God didn’t set up the parents to have a blind child, or the man to have a life as a beggar. I know this. The prophets knew it long before Jesus came. We just get confused about it sometimes.
Some of us are born to be short, or red-headed, or left-handed, or gay. In the past, some of those things have been considered the result of sin on someone’s part. But we live in the era of science. We know better. Even a tenth grade biology student can tell us a little about genetics. They know that we are only beginning to understand the full range of things coded in our DNA and where exactly to find them. Maybe someday they’ll find stubbornness. The more we know, the brighter the light of understanding shines.
*However* we are born, we are flawed and fragile simply by virtue of being human. And even so, God’s works can be revealed in us.
“You were born entirely in sins,” the Pharisees say to the Man Who Now Can See. And they dismiss his testimony about the way God’s works had been revealed in and through Jesus. They bang their heads against the truth. I’ve been right there with them. Sometimes it’s the only way I can get to it.
Who loved, that this man was born Jesus? He was born Jesus, Christ, that God’s works might be revealed in him, for all of us to see. He was born Christ, Jesus, that God’s work of love might be known in him. May we open our eyes and see. Amen.