Fourth Sunday in Lent
Sin is a very popular topic for people to talk about. As long, of course, as it is not our sin that they are talking about. Even though it is OK for us to talk about the sins of others, we do not want anyone to ever talk about our sins. That would just be malicious gossip, and we all know that gossip is wrong, unless we are the ones who are doing it.
Our passage this morning opens with what might sound like gossip, but is most likely a “theological” question of some interest. In the first century, almost everybody, including Jesus’ disciples, apparently, believed in something called “divine earthly retribution”. Divine earthly retribution is that belief, somewhat akin to “you reap what you sow”, only much more frightening, that posits a God who is ready to smite at a moment’s notice. If you do something wrong, expect to get whacked for it. God will smite you, or as this passage puts it, God will smite your baby. And that is where the disciples’ question comes from, when Jesus’ disciples ask him, “…who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples have decided that this man’s calamity is directly connected to someone’s sin; it is either the parents, or it is the man himself, while he was still gestating in the womb. Who is it that we shall blame for this terrible tragedy? Blame is also something that is very important to us. Whom shall we blame for this, and whom shall we blame for that? In this case, Jesus makes it plain that neither sin nor blame is involved, and that sure sucks the wind out of the sails of those of us who might have wanted to do a bit of gossiping over this. Jesus makes it plain that neither the parents, nor the man sinned, and so therefore, no one can be blamed. Of course, much discussion can be made of me, and probably already has!!
Rather, Jesus says, this man’s blindness presents an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed. It turns out though, that no one seems willing to allow God to do the works of God. This blind man is about to embark upon a brand new adventure, but almost nobody is willing to celebrate it with him.
But then, again, it is a new thing. A very new thing. It is not every day in our world, nor in the world of the first century for someone who has been blind from birth, to suddenly become a sighted person. I wonder if it even happens today. Perhaps not.
It is clear, though, from the way that John tells this story, that no one quite knows how to handle this very new thing that has suddenly come upon their lives. In fact if it wasn’t such a wonderful thing, it would be an absolutely hilarious thing. It is both. It is hilarious and it is wonderful, and John uses his tremendous sense of humor to tell us this story.
Sadly, though, the very people who should have been able to make sense of this, who could have explained it, and who ultimately could have arranged a community-wide celebration to give thanks for it, refuse to accept a reality that is literally staring them in the face.
The religious authorities should have immediately recognized this healing as the triumphant work of God in their midst. Instead, they come off looking like a bunch of blind buffoons, unwilling and unable to recognize that God has come to them in a most amazing and wonderful way. They remind me of those three absurd-looking little monkeys, only this time it is see nothing that is good, hear nothing that is good, and do nothing that is good, even when God’s glory is bursting out all over the place in plain view for everyone to see. There are more blind people in this story than there are people who are sighted.But before we get too far afield in the fun sport of bashing the religious leaders for their inappropriate response, let us ask ourselves, what would we do? What questions would we ask, how would we react to this sudden disruption of predictability and normalcy? How have we already reacted, just in the hearing of the story? And let us be brutally honest with ourselves. A very difficult question that we must ask ourselves is this: in what ways do we expect God to be at work in this world? That is a hard one to ponder honestly, because it really comes down to a question of our authority over God. That’s right, our authority over God. It really asks, what will we allow God to do in this world? In what ways do we believe that God can reasonably intrude into this world? And even more difficult to ponder, when do we expect God to keep to himself? In what ways would we rather that God not intrude? Where is God unwelcome in our lives?
There is not the time this morning for us to ponder these questions, with the serious, soul-searching attention that they deserve. But our answers should be able to help us to better understand the dilemma that the religious leaders in this passage faced. At first glance, it really does look, like God has done something extraordinary. This is a local man, and nearly everybody knows him, and nearly everybody knows that yesterday he was quite blind, and always had been, and that today, he seems to be quite sighted, and walking around all by himself, where once he simply sat and panhandled. Something good has happened to this lad, and everybody in the neighborhood knows it. Jesus said he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
But when the religious leaders become involved, and they have to become involved, because it is their job to authenticate the healing, a theological issue arises. It is sadly, and unfortunately, the Sabbath Day. And presumably, healings are not to occur on the Sabbath Day. Well, that’s not quite true; healings could occur on the Sabbath Day, but only if life itself was in peril. And specifically, blindness, and bone setting and leprosy don’t count. Those kinds of healings should take place on a different day, other than on the sabbath. Blind people with leprosy and broken bones can wait until tomorrow.And maybe, just maybe, there’s another problem, too. Jesus made mud. Jesus spat on the ground, and made mud with his saliva, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. And I’ll bet that very few of us here this morning are thinking that Jesus is busy kneading dough and getting ready to bake some bread. But this act of making the mud to spread on the man’s eyes may very well be the very thing that has raised the ire of the religious leaders. Kneading dough was forbidden on the sabbath. And making mud could be analogous to kneading dough, and therefore, what Jesus has done becomes a transgression of the rules of the sabbath. This, of course, is not the first time that Jesus has been guilty of transgressing the rules of the sabbath, and his behavior or misbehavior on the sabbaths is high on the list of criticisms that the religious leaders keep of Jesus. It does not seem that Jesus respects the sabbath in the way that he ought. A man who was truly holy would do much better than this. If we grew up in a more legalistic environment, we might actually find ourselves agreeing with the religious leaders when they say things in this passage like, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” and, “…We know that this man is a sinner” and, “We know God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” That’s a polite, but pointed way of saying, Oh yes, we do know where he’s coming from, and it is certainly not from above. It is from somewhere else.
Where are we coming from this morning? This goes back to the question that I asked us to ponder earlier. What is it that our rational, practical, and already made-up minds will allow or not allow God to do in our midst? The religious leaders are very clear about what God can and cannot do. They’ve settled it. They know. Ultimately, they will not allow God to work on the sabbath. They have already concluded that Jesus is a sinner, and so therefore he cannot be doing the work of God. This is all the more remarkable because this is am extraordinary healing. Quite comically, even though the evidence is obvious, the religious leaders actually do quite a bit of work on the sabbath, trying to prove that this healing did not happen. Denying what Jesus has done solves the problem completely. If we didn’t see it happen, then it never happened. We are the authorities around here. At the end of this passage, Jesus condemns the religious leaders, and he accuses them of being the ones who have been blind since birth. That’s quite an accusation to hurl at those who consider themselves to be filled with insight and understanding.
There’s something amazing in this passage that I have intentionally saved for last. Jesus is not really guilty of mimicking the craft of breadmaking. He is, instead, guilty of engaging in the act of creation. I cannot think of a better or more profound way for Jesus to demonstrate the divine prerogative than to mix up some mud. On the day that humankind was created, God himself mixed up some mud. And he shaped it and he formed it and he crafted that mud into the shape of a human being. And on that day, on the sabbath, Jesus took mud and he blessed it and he recreated the eyes of a man who had been blind from birth. The religious leaders said, “This Man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” And they were wrong, and they were wrong because they were blind, and because they did not see this brilliant act of creation. It is in fact, not the sabbath; it may be the Sabbath Day as it is observed, and as it appears on the calendar, but on this Sabbath Day God was at work. By his work of creation, Jesus was pointing to a greater sabbath that is yet to come, and that for us, has not yet come.
At the very beginning of this passage, Jesus makes this very plain to his disciples. As he justifies what he is about to do, he says this: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” In Hebrew culture, the Sabbath Day began at sunset. Jesus is saying to his disciples that now is the time to work. Now is the time to do the works of God. The true sabbath has not yet begun. It is still the day-time, and God’s work must be done.
Let us, then, work the works of the one who has created us, and who has sent us into this world. And most importantly, let us never limit what we will allow God to do.