The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 9:1-41.
Did you see the sunrise this morning? Did you notice how in the east, the sun itself was blocked out by heavy gray clouds; but in the west there were other clouds, higher up, that were brilliantly illuminated in the rising dawn? And if you saw that, did you think, “Oh, today is going to be gloomy and cloudy and gray”? Or did you think, “Today is going to be a day of marvelous light”? How did you choose to see the dawn?
Our Gospel this morning is all about choosing to see. Having new vision is most obvious, of course, for the man born blind, whose eyes Jesus opens. But what fascinates me about this story is the way every single character is offered their own version of a choice to see in a new way – and what’s really interesting is how these other characters each make their choice.
The crowd in the marketplace who witness the miracle have a hard time making that choice. They know they’ve seen a blind beggar before. They know they see a man now who can see. They know the blind beggar and the seeing man look a lot alike. But they’re not quite willing to see it’s the same man; they’re not quite willing to say they’ve seen a miracle. They can’t quite choose between blindness and sight – they’re left teetering somewhere in the middle.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, are quite sure what they’ve seen: they have seen no kind of miracle, what they’ve seen is some sort of stunt by this anti-authoritarian upstart Jesus, and they want nothing to do with it. All they can see is that the entire situation is soaked with sin, whether it be the man’s sins or the sin that Jesus did work on the Sabbath—and since Pharisees hate sin, they hate the man and Jesus too, and they drive the man out of their synagogue. The Pharisees make their choice what to see, and all they can see is what they hate.
The man’s parents, who are interrogated by the Pharisees, aren’t entirely sure what they’ve seen. They can see their son, and they can see it’s really him, and they know he used to be blind, and they can see that now he sees – but they can’t yet see the connection between all those facts, they can’t yet see what Jesus has done. They’re not being willfully blind, but neither are they entirely willing to see.
The man himself, whose eyes are opened, keeps on seeing more clearly all through the story. At first he receives his sight; but gradually he receives insight as well. The more he reflects on what has happened to him, the more he answers other people’s questions about what has happened to him, the more clearly he sees what Jesus means: first he sees Jesus as a man, then he sees Jesus is a prophet, then Jesus as one who comes from God, and finally he sees that Jesus is one he worships. The man’s insight becomes more and more clear, as the sight of his eyes was cleared, and he moves from blindness to the sight of Jesus as the one who gives him life.
And then there’s the disciples. Those wonderful, thickheaded, misguided, always-learning disciples. They only appear at the beginning of the story; but in a way, they get the whole ball rolling. Their choice between blindness and sight is the most subtle choice of all – and I want to suggest that their choice gives us the key to understanding the whole story. Because after all we are disciples too – and if we want to learn Good News from this story, we must put ourselves in the disciples’ position and make for ourselves the choice they are invited to make.
So the disciples and Jesus are walking through the marketplace, and they see a man who has been blind all his life. And the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, to make him be born blind?” At face value it seems like a simple question; but there are several assumptions behind the question, and those assumptions themselves deserve to be questioned.
First is the assumption that God causes suffering – blindness, illness, accidents – as a punishment for sin. The man is blind because he’s being punished, they think; but is he being punished for his own sin, sin he presumably committed in the womb; or is he being punished for his parents’ sins committed before he was born? For the disciples that is an interesting conundrum of moral theology; but that blindness is a punishment is an assumption that deserves to be questioned.
Second is the assumption that, if you want to know the truth of something, you need to know its cause, you need to know the reason why it happened – in some cases, you need to know who to blame.
And third is the assumption that we are controlled by our past, that this man’s situation is what it is because of what happened before, and nothing in the now is going to be able to change that.
So with those assumptions hovering in the background, the disciples ask, “Who sinned, back in the past, so that God had to punish this man now with being blind?”
Jesus hears the disciples’ question; but instead of answering at face value, he turns the question around. He questions the disciples’ assumptions, and invites them to see the blind man’s situation in a whole new light. “He’s not blind because of sin,” Jesus says, “but so that the works of God might be made visible in him.” Instead of assuming this blindness is a punishment for sin, Jesus assumes this blindness is an opportunity to reveal God’s light. Instead of assuming this thing’s truth is in its cause, the reason why it happened, Jesus assumes its truth is in its effect, its outcome, what God will do with it next. Instead of assuming this man is controlled by his past, Jesus assumes that God can give the possibility of calling forth a new future beginning now.
Jesus turns the disciples’ assumptions around, and invites them to see the blind man in a whole new light, to see in him the new work that God is doing, the new possibilities that God is opening, the new life that God is offering. And more than that: Jesus invites the disciples to join in God’s new work: “We must work the works of God who sent me,” Jesus says, “as long as I am in the world I am the light of the world, and I will give you light to work with God.”
Now the story never tells us whether the disciples accept Jesus’ invitation, whether they really do learn to see the man born blind in a whole new light, whether they really do learn to see God’s works in the man’s sight. After that first scene in the story, the disciples never come back on stage again; so we don’t know what they did. All we can know is what we would do. If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, will we learn to see in a whole new light? Will we learn to see God’s works in our worlds? Will we learn to see not just the blame and sin and limits of the past, but to see the new possibilities God opens up to call us toward God’s future? If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, how will we choose between blindness and sight?
How will you choose to see this week? Will you look at the society around us, and see only failure and division and anger – or will you see possibilities for building community, for creating just relationships, for reaching across boundaries and barriers that some people want to divide us?
Will you look at the people near to you, and see strangers, rivals, enemies, objects for your gratification – or will you see persons, personalities with hopes and dreams and needs much like yours, children of God who deserve respect and compassion and love?
Will you look at yourself, look into your own heart, and see only failure and sin and bondage to the past – or will you see new possibilities, the work of God being revealed in you, your love and your life in a whole new light?
As a disciple of Jesus, how will you see?
Let it be our prayer today that we may choose to see, and to work, and to wake from sleep, and rise from the dead, and let Christ shine in us. Amen.