Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blinded by the Light: Jesus as The Light of the World

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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Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here, Coming S.
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
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.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Delivered on Sunday, March 30th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures

RCLEE • Year A • Fourth Sunday after Lent
Year A • The Fourth Sunday after Lent
1 Samuel 16:1–13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8–14
John 9:1–41

Other Relevant Texts
John 1:1–18 • John 3:16–21 • John 8:12 • John 12:30-50

The Collect
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1–13
1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
     6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Psalm 23 • Dominus regit me • BCP 612
   1      The Lord is my shepherd; *
                  I shall not be in want.
   2      He makes me lie down in green pastures *
                  and leads me beside still waters.
   3      He revives my soul *
                  and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
   4      Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
                  for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
   5      You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
                  you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
   6      Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
                  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Ephesians 5:8–14
8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-- 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

John 9:1–41
1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
     13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
     24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Other Relevant Texts
John 1:1–18
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being, [which] has come into being. 4 [I]n him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
      6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
      14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 3:16–21
16 ”For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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 8:12
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

John 12:30-50
30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people1 to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah1 remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.
      36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. 37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn -- and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said this because1 he saw his glory and spoke about him. 42 Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.
      44 Then Jesus cried aloud: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, 49 for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”

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