During today’s sermon, I am going to invite you once again into a story from the Gospel of John about someone who has an encounter with Jesus. Each of these stories we’ve told in the last several weeks involve what we commonly refer to as miracles. The first week we studied Nicodemus, who seeks out Jesus after he witnesses Jesus performing signs no one can do apart from the presence of God. Two weeks ago we talked about Lazarus, who dies and is resurrected from the dead at the command of Jesus. In this week’s story a man born blind will receive his sight.
Modern, intellectual people have our misgivings about miracles. I’ve been hosting a Bible study during Lent this year. Last week in that study, we looked at this story of the man born blind. One of our participants said that for him, miracles can detract from Bible stories. There’s so much richness in the model Jesus’ gives us for moral living and loving our neighbor, but having to deal with the miracle in the story makes the whole thing hard to relate to.
It’s a common reaction. “What am I to make of these miracles in the Bible?” “What if I don’t believe them?” It’s important to note that in the Gospel of John, they are not called miracles, but signs. Jesus does things that are meant to alert people to the presence of God. I would argue that this might be more relevant to most of us: Many of us wonder from time to time if a surprising occurrence in our lives is pure accident, or if it might be a sign that God’s Spirit is on the move and that we would be wise to slow down and take notice. Thinking about signs like these will be our task for today’s message.
Like the other lessons in this sermon series, this story is a long one. Today, instead of reading the whole lesson as I often do and then going back to begin the sermon, today I’ll be reading through the story as I preach, pointing out some things as I go. Follow whatever translation you like; on the screen you’ll see a recent scholarly translation called the Common English Bible.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4 While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7 Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
It’s the story of a man who was born blind and Jesus restores his sight. As the story begins, the disciples ask: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” A lot of sermons, some of them good ones, I’m sure, have had this question as their focus. Why was this man born blind, what is the cause of his suffering? The disciples’ question speaks to a historical idea: In the ancient world, it was a commonly held belief that physical ailments or differences were a sign of sin, and when born with those differences, the sins were often attributed to the parents.
Sometimes, historical context is valuable when reading and interpreting the Bible; other times it can be a distraction. If I know my congregation at all, probably none of you would agree that any person born blind deserves it because of sin. This was an ancient debate, but for you it is over. So, while the historical question may be interesting, for today, let’s set it aside and move on to Jesus’ answer:
In the story,“[Jesus] answered [the question], ‘Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus agrees about setting aside the debate about sin. However, his reply about “God’s mighty works” raises questions of its own. I’m going to return to that verse later, but first I want to continue through the story and take a look at what happens.
8 The man’s neighbors and those who used to see him when he was a beggar said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”
9 Some said, “It is,” and others said, “No, it’s someone who looks like him.”
But the man said, “Yes, it’s me!”
10 So they asked him, “How are you now able to see?”
11 He answered, “The man they call Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes, and said, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12 They asked, “Where is this man?”
He replied, “I don’t know.”
I want you to notice that when this blind man is healed…when this man whose physical difference has made him a beggar in his community for his whole life…when this man finally gets some good news of healing and restoration…all the people whom you would hope to see share in his joy instead let him down.
First are his neighbors. “Is this the man who used to beg,” they ask? These are his neighbors, remember; they know who he is! Some say, “It is him” but others say, “No, it is someone else.” The reading continues:
13 Then they led the man who had been born blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now Jesus made the mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes on a Sabbath day. (So, we’ve got another story here about Jesus working on the Sabbath)
15 So Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
The man told them, “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”
16 Some Pharisees said, “This man isn’t from God, because he breaks the Sabbath law.” Others said, “How can a sinner do miraculous signs like these?” So they were divided. 17 Some of the Pharisees questioned the man who had been born blind again: “What do you have to say about him, since he healed your eyes?”
He replied, “He’s a prophet.”
First the man’s neighbors disappoint him by not being happy for him; next his church lets him down. The Pharisees, the respectable religious authorities of the day, are suspicious of the man’s good fortune; some are curious but they all reduce his good fortune to an intellectual debate. The reading continues:
18 The Jewish leaders didn’t believe the man had been blind and received his sight until they called for his parents. 19 The Jewish leaders asked them, “Is this your son? Are you saying he was born blind? How can he now see?”
20 His parents answered, “We know he is our son. We know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who healed his eyes. Ask him. He’s old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jewish authorities. This is because the Jewish authorities had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be expelled from the synagogue.23 That’s why his parents said, “He’s old enough. Ask him.”
So, the crowd goes next to the man’s parents, but his parents fear being ostracized by the polite church people, so they say, “We don’t know how it happened; ask him yourself.”
Everyone in the community lets the blind man down. Seminary professor Deborah Kapp says that if you find yourself pining away for the good old days of the past where community meant something to people and neighbors and families and churches took care of people, don’t look to this story. (Kapp, Feasting on the Word, Lenten Companion, 69-70) First the neighbors, then the church, and finally the parents, have let this man down.
All this rejection, this utter absence of community support, is important to notice because it’s a sharp contrast to the reaction of the man himself. Notice what he says. He may start with some doubts, but over time, even in the face of all this community betrayal, his belief begins to grow.
First, among his neighbors, when asked what happened, he simply says, “It’s me everyone—I am the man.” Next, when the religious people doubt him, and ask him who it was who healed him, he grows bolder; he says, “He is a prophet.” When his parents let him down, and people interrogate him once more, he utters words that are some of the most beloved in Christianity: Asked if Jesus is a sinner, he answers: “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. What I do know: I once was blind, and now I see.” In spite of opposition and adversity, this man’s faith is growing.
Let’s see how it ends:
26 They questioned him: “What did he do to you? How did he heal your eyes?”
27 He replied, “I already told you, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” (He’s starting to get a little cheeky with his accusers)
28 They insulted him: “You are his disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”
30 The man answered, “This is incredible! You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. 32 No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. 33 If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”
34 They responded, “You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?” Then they expelled him.
The community doesn’t care that the man was blind and now he sees. They are scared of the sign. They are defensive. So, they fall back upon what they think they know. They call him a sinner for being born blind in the first place, and they expel him from their community.
That’s how the man’s community responds. But how does Jesus respond?
35 Jesus heard they had expelled the man born blind. Finding him, Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Human One?”
36 He answered, “Who is he, sir? I want to believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You have seen him. In fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
38 The man said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus.
Faced with adversity, sight restored but thrown out of the community, the man’s faith grows stronger still: “Lord, I believe,” he says.
39 Jesus said, “I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”
41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Here at the end of the story we finally get the point; we hear the truth that you sense Jesus has been carrying from the moment he came upon the blind man. Blindness—at least in this story—isn’t so much a physical situation; it’s a way of being.
This is a story about what it means to see: to be open, to understand, to be teachable, to receive wisdom to see the signs. Some people can’t do this. Some people will not. Some folks are so stuck in their own ways of thinking that no amount of wisdom can enlighten them.
You don’t know anyone like that, do you? I don’t suppose you’ve ever been such a person yourself?
I know I have. The fact is, we’re all tempted to be doubters and dissenters at times. One of the interesting details of this story is that there’s a debate—among the neighbors and again among the Pharisees—between the believers and the doubters, but the doubters seem to carry the day. Being blind to possibility and inclined toward doubt seems to be a big part of being human.
I don’t mean to say doubt is unimportant, for it is. Sometimes doubts, expressed honestly and openly, can lead to new insight. Sometimes, if you want to learn something about belief you have to have enough guts to speak out loud about your doubts.
One of the participants in my Bible study this week raised a really good doubt about what Jesus says at the start of this story, and as I said earlier, I want to go back to that. At the beginning of this story, Jesus says this of the man’s blindness: “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” And one of that man in our study asked: “What kind of God would allow a man to be born blind and live a lifetime as a beggar so that God’s glory might be revealed?”
It’s a great question. If you don’t believe in a God that would do that kind of thing—well, I tend to agree with you. And because that honest question was raised, I looked more deeply into this story and he’s where I landed:
Remember that while all of the onlookers–the neighbors, the church people, the parents– all have their doubts and misgivings. The man himself, this beggar who had already had such a hard life—when faced with their hating, his faith only grows stronger. He goes from curiosity to belief. He goes from “I don’t know what happened…” to “He must be a prophet…” to “I do know this, I once was blind but now I see…” and finally he arrives at “Lord, I believe!” In this man, we see some doubt, but it’s paired with real curiosity, and so it blossoms into tremendous faith.
Listen to this detail I found as I wrestled with this passage: In Greek, the syntax, the order of the words is often different than it is in English, so the word order in our English translations can sometimes trip us up. When I consider the obvious faith and character of the blind man in the story, what I really think is going on is found in another, superior translation of the verse, here it is: “This happened so that God’s mighty works in him might be displayed.”
The story isn’t about the man’s physical blindness or the fact that it’s healed, the story is about his faith—a faith that was in him all along, but that others in their own blindness refused to see. The neighbors, the Pharisees, even this man’s parents have always looked at the man and seen a blind man or a beggar; but the reality—what they should have seen—is that God mighty acts ARE in him and always have been.
He doesn’t receive faith, he doesn’t get the gift of faith after his sight is restored. This man has been faithful, gifted, full of good news to share all along—and the doubters in the story…the ones who have treated him like a beggar his entire life, and who still do not believe there is anything good in him…the ones who run him out of the community…Jesus says it: they are the ones who are blind.
It’s a great critique in reading this story to ask how God could possibly allow a man to live life as an outcast and a beggar in order for God to prove a point. The truth, I think, is that this man was never an outcast and a beggar because of what God had done to him. He was an outcast and a beggar because of what his community did to him. That’s where the real sin resides in this story. If God’s glory is shown in this narrative, it is shown in the way the truth is told about blindness.
I’m sure many of you know people in our own world who are physically blind, or perhaps who have some other significant physical disability or difference. One of my closest friends is unable to walk. My experience is that the last thing he wants from me is pity—no way. He hopes to be seen for the whole, wonderful, and gifted person that he is, in spite of what challenges or limitations he may face in a world that is often not constructed with him in mind. My friendship with him often reveals the limitations of my own thinking.
This Bible story of the blind man ends up being a cautionary tale not only about his situation, but about the countless situations where we and our communities are dismissive of the gifts of people who may be different in some respect. Our blindness to their gifts is our own failure, and our lack of care and respect for them is often a failure of our communities.
To personalize the story one step further: haven’t we all at some point felt cast aside, disregarded, or diminished because of some respect in which we ourselves may be different? In all these cases, it is crucial to realize, just as today’s story tells us, that we are not cast aside by God. God remembers and loves every one of us in the midst of all our amazing difference and reality.
The great invitation in this story is to see one another and ourselves as God sees us, and not to be blind to the holiness in every human being.
Wouldn’t that be a miracle?