How do we adjust our eyes to the brightness of Jesus and the Gospel ?
Year A • The Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1–13 • Psalm 23 • Ephesians 5:8–14 • John 9:1–41
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Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.
Blinded by the Light
I grew up on a family farm in Woodward, Oklahoma, which is a small town located in the northwest corner of the state. As you might expect, we had to get up really early to get our chores done, especially on school days, because the bus picked us up around 7:00 o’clock. For me, there were chickens and rabbits to be fed and watered, and breakfast to be eaten. In the winters, chores took longer because warm water from the house had to be hauled out to the animals, since we couldn’t use the outside faucets for fear of them freezing. I remember many a morning loading up a wagon with six or seven jugs of warm water, and dragging the wagon through the snow to the chicken coup.
Needless to say, none of this was particularly fun or easy. But my Dad was really great. He did what he could to make all of this as painless as possible. For example, when he got me up in the morning, he would come in quietly with a candle, sit down on my bed, and softly say, “Hey Son, it’s time to get up.” And I would wake up slowly.. It was wonderful.
Or rather, it would have been wonderful had it actually happened that way. But it didn’t; not even close. Instead, Dad would throw open my bedroom door at 5:30, flip on the overhead lights, and say in a rather loud voice, “Get up you lazy bum.”
I think this was Dad’s idea of a joke. You know, anybody who could still be in bed as late as 5:30 must be sleeping in. The problem is, I never quite found the humor in this little morning routine. This had to be one of the worse ways to wake up, this being blinded by the light.
Light is Not Always Welcome
I tell this story to make a point. Light is not always welcome. Light is not always perceived as a blessing. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus proclaims himself to be The Light of the world, and he demonstrates his claim by healing a blind man. Pretty amazing stuff. Pretty wonderful, isn’t it? Well, not for everybody. For the blind man, certainly, and for some others. But not for everyone. Not for the Pharisees and many of the other Jewish leaders.
Jesus of Nazareth is The Light of the world, and he was sent by God to bring the light of life to a world groping about in the darkness of death—the darkness of sin and violence, the darkness of hatred and injustice. But not everyone was eager for the Light. Having grown accustomed to the darkness, some had a hard time adjusting their eyes to brightness of the gospel. This is what we see dramatically played out in today’s reading.
But from the very beginning of his gospel, John has prepared his readers for those who would resist the coming of the Light. In the prologue, John writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… [I]n him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.... He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:1, 4–5, 11–12).
The Light came into the world that had been created through him. He came to those who owed their very existence to him. Yet they did not recognize him; they did not acknowledge or welcome him (1:11). There is a bit of a mystery there.
Later, Jesus talks with Nicodemus about the polarizing effect that his coming will have. He speaks first of God’s love for the world, of God’s desire to rescue and restore all humanity, but then he offers this candid assessment of the world’s response to the light.
This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God (John 3:19–21).
So again, Light is not always welcomed. Though the Light came to bring life to the world God loves, not everyone perceived it as a blessing. The Light pierces the night of our brokenness and our estrangement from God. And while some are drawn to the Light like a moth to the flame, others flee in fear, hiding themselves in the shadows.
The Light is not going to win everyone over, at least not initially. In this way, John prepares us for the mixed response that Jesus’ words and actions will evoke. So, readers of John are not particularly surprised by the Pharisees’ negative response to Jesus’ healing of the blind man.
Rejecting the Light
Of course, Jesus doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in winning any popularity contests. He certainly hasn’t gone out of his way to endear himself to the Jewish leadership. Prior to today’s healing, he has criticized their running of the temple, he has healed on the Sabbath, and he has said things like, “You are not from God” (8:47b), “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:47b). So, it is little wonder that, by the time we arrive at today’s episode, many leaders are ready to do away with Jesus, this false prophet from backwater Galilee, who is deceiving the people with his signs and wonders.
And nothing Jesus does today changes their opinion of him. In fact, his healing of the blind man only serves to reinforce their view that he is a sinner and a false prophet. But why? After all, Jesus heals a blind man, and not just any blind man, but a man who has been blind from birth, a man who has never seen anything. Jesus does not simply restore this man’s sight, he gives him sight. He truly is The Light of the World. As the man himself so eloquently testifies,
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 (John 9:31–33).
The Pharisees and the Sabbath
And yet, the Pharisees maintain that Jesus is a sinner. Why? Because he healed the man on the Sabbath. But why should that matter? Well, I wish we had time to explore this in greater detail because, as I have said on numerous occasions, if we do not understand why Jesus’ opponents were so violently opposed to him, if we simply dismiss them as petty or legalistic, then we miss something of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. Moreover, in dismissing the Pharisees, we are in danger of overlooking how we might be like them.
So let me say this. For the Pharisees, as well was for most first-century Jews, the keeping of Sabbath was a very serious matter. Not only had it been commanded by God—it is after all one of the Ten Commandments—but it was also a key marker of Jewish identity, which was especially important for a people who had been living under foreign occupation for the better part of five hundred years. In fact, along with circumcision, kosher food laws, and the reading of Torah, Sabbath keeping was one of the practices that had sustained the Jews during their exile in Babylon. Moreover, in 167 b.c., these pillars of Jewish identity were all outlawed by their pagan overlord, Antiochus Epiphanes. And rather than forsake those things that God had commanded them, the Jews fought back, and many died.
So, when Jesus comes along healing on the Sabbath, it causes great offense. In part, because he seems to be showing contempt for Jewish identity; he seems to be dishonoring the memory of those who had given up their lives rather than break the Sabbath. And so, I would argue, that the offense Jesus generated by healing on the Sabbath is comparable to the offense that is triggered when somebody today burns the American flag.
Moreover, healing on the Sabbath seems to count against Jesus being from God. Because as everybody knows, God himself rested on the Sabbath after the six days of creation. How can Jesus claim to be performing the work of God, when God himself doesn’t work on the Sabbath? Listen to the response a Jewish leader makes in Luke’s gospel when Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath. “The leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day’” (Luke 13:14).
That’s such a great line: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” It offers such insight into the mindset of the Pharisees. It helps us gain an appreciation for how someone could look at a miraculous healing of a blind man—regardless of the day on which it occurred—and conclude that it was anything other than the work of God, that it was anything other than a sign that this Jesus was in fact The Light of the World, sent by God, to reflect the very glory and grace of God.
Adjusting Our Eyes to the Light of Christ
I belabor this point because I don’t think that the Pharisees are unique or exceptional in their blindness. I see evidence of their blindness in myself, in our American society, and even in the Church. And this raises some questions.
Are there things that we value—not just as individuals, but as communities, as a nation and a society—are there things that we value that blind us to who Jesus is? Are there things, dark things, that we have grown accustomed to, things that we have come to rely upon in order to maintain our identity and our way of life, things that define us which are contrary to God’s vision for the world, things that make us shield our eyes when the Light of the Gospel reveals them for what they are?
In short, where are our blind spots? It’s a critical question, and one worthy of serious reflection, especially during this time of Lent, this season where we are called to “self-examination and repentance; by [means of] prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP 264–265).
And when our blindness is revealed, what can we do about it? After all, blind people cannot heal themselves. That’s one of the reasons why we flee from the Light in the first place. When the Light shines into the dark recesses of our lives, we feel naked and exposed. We feel the guilt of our brokenness and the shame of our past failures, we feel the shame and guilt of our inability to change and our unwillingness to be changed. We know that we are blind, and we would just as soon forget it. For if we could make ourselves see, then we wouldn’t be blind in the first place. So what’s to be done?
Very simply, we need to come into the Light. Or at a minimum, we need to resist the temptation to hide when the Light reveals something in us that is contrary to the Gospel. We need to come into the Light, and remain there until we grow accustomed to the Light. Sometimes, the Light blinds us and that can be very painful, but if we remain in the Light, our eyes will adjust, and we will be able to see.
But how is this done? It begins and ends with acknowledging that Jesus is indeed the Light of the World. It begins and ends with putting our trust in Jesus as the one who reveals most fully the grace, truth, and love of God. Jesus grants us the power to become children of God (John 1:12), he empowers us to live as children of the Light (Eph 5:8). So it all begins and ends with him.
Recall that Jesus did not simply give the blind man physical sight, he returned later and granted him spiritual sight, which began with trust.
Jesus 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 worshiped him (John 9:35–38).
Now, I should add, that putting our trust in Jesus is not a one-time affair. It is an ongoing process, a daily process of acknowledging who Jesus is, of believing in him and worshipping him. It is a relationship of increasing dependence & reliance upon him.
Moreover, this trust will grow and mature as we develop the habit of bringing things into the Light, as we develop a habit of acknowledging our blindness and our resistance to change and offering these things up to Jesus.We do this in prayer, we do this in worship, and above all we do this in community. So I invite you to come into the loving, life-filled Light of Christ, again and again and again. At times, you may find yourselves blinded by the Light, but resist the temptation to throw the covers over your head. Just remain in the Light, and listen to the voice of your heavenly Father who says very gently, “Wake up Daughter; Wake up Son; it’s time to get up.”