Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 4A, March 26, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23.1-6; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. Laetare comes from the Latin word meaning to rejoice. It marks roughly the midway point of Lent with its disciplines of self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial, and begins to point us to the joyous celebration of Easter; hence the rose-colored chasuble I wear this morning. So what in our lessons gives us reason to rejoice? In one way or another, each lesson is about seeing life in a different light, the light of God, and this is what I want us to look at this morning, focusing especially on our gospel lesson.
In the story of Jesus healing the blind man, we are confronted with the age-old question of why bad things happen to people. In typical biblical fashion, John is not much interested in answering the “why” question. Instead, John focuses on the “what”—what God is doing about evil. Jesus tells us as much. This man was born blind so that God’s works can be revealed, and then Jesus proceeded to heal the man In other words, we are invited to see God working in our midst to bring about fresh acts of new creation. God doesn’t tell us why all the bad things and evil exist in his world. Rather, God promises to right all the wrongs—a much more satisfactory answer in the final analysis—both partially now through God’s Messiah and his people (that would be us), and finally through a mighty act of new creation at our Lord’s Second Coming when God’s victory over evil won on the cross is finally brought to completion in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. This is not the way the world sees the problem of evil. Those opposed to God are blind to God’s works and look for human solutions to combat evil, solutions that must inevitably fail because the power of evil and the human race’s slavery to Sin is greater than our efforts to overcome them. So what about you? Do you believe in the power of God to bring about his promised new creation, even during your lifetime and through you? If so, you must live your life with hope, even in the midst of all that is so desperately wrong in God’s world.
But the story of Jesus and the blind man quickly leaves the problem of evil behind and we are confronted with yet another kind of evil: Spiritual blindness that results from human pride, and most of us are familiar with this problem. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day reject Jesus’ healing of the blind man as legitimate. Why? Because our Lord had the audacity to heal on the Sabbath, and for their money this was a sign of godlessness on the part of Jesus. No man of God would violate the Sabbath, even to heal! You see, these religious big shots were so sure of themselves and their interpretation of the Scriptures, that they were blind to the corrective truth Jesus was showing them. They put their trust in themselves and their training. They were learned men. They preached tremendously tepid sermons like Fr. Sang preached last Sunday. They had all the answers so that their minds were closed to the possibility that some of what they believed just might be wrong. And because they were blind to the truth, they ended up adjusting their picture of the moral universe to fit their misguided and sometimes flat-out evil views. But what John wants us to see is that only Jesus gets to define what is right and wrong because only Jesus is God become man. Only Jesus is the light of the world, and only in and through Jesus can we ever hope to have a real relationship with the Father. The blindness of the religious leaders ultimately caused them to strike a deal with death because they rejected Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is a sobering thing to contemplate.
That’s all well and good, you say. But we don’t live in Jesus’ day and we’re not religious big shots. We’re just ordinary losers. True enough. But the pride that existed in the religious leaders of Jesus’ day is alive and well in us today. Here are some test questions to help us assess how pride-infected we really are. Do we put ourselves over the authority of Scripture, over Jesus’ authority as Lord and ruler of this vast universe so that we too are blinded to God’s truth and authority over us? Do we, for example, hold views of sexuality that are consistent with the creation narratives and God’s intention for marriage? Or do we see ourselves as too sophisticated for the antiquated narrative that we find in Scripture? Is our conception of power more like the world recognizes, where we lord it over others to achieve our goals, or do we see power in self-giving love and service for the sake of others? Do we worship the one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, or do we worship ourselves or money or security or ambition or [insert your favorite idol here]? Anytime we try to rationalize why we don’t follow God’s commands, anytime we seek to be human in ways that are contrary to the ways of Jesus, the one true human, we demonstrate our blindness, especially when we talk about how superior is our knowledge and understanding of the ways of the world and tout our scientific, medical, and technological advances, along with their accompanying worldviews, as reasons why we must abandon or modify the authority of Scripture and our Lord Jesus’ authority over us.
And while most of us are aware of this kind of spiritual blindness, there is another kind of blindness that is also caused by pride, a blindness many of us are not aware of because we have repressed it out of fear of God’s judgment on us. It is a blindness that I personally have struggled with all my life, the blindness of not seeing Sin for what it is and therefore minimizing it. This in turn causes us to reject our radical and desperate need of the cross as the only real antidote to our sin-sickness and alienation from God. When we suffer from this kind of blindness, we are hopelessly and terrifyingly lost and alienated from God, because we have rejected the gift of God’s love, justice, and mercy offered freely to each of us. And deep down we know it because we have the accompanying anxiety to prove that we do.
So here’s another little quiz to help you assess if you suffer from this form of blindness. Do you see your sins as something that you can fundamentally correct if you simply try a little harder so that they can be properly resolved if you just repent of them? Do you see your sins as fundamentally a problem you have with following the rules (e.g., do this, don’t do that)? You know. If you would only make better choices you really wouldn’t have a problem with Sin in your life. If you answered yes to either of these questions, even partially, you have demonstrated your blindness to the problem and severity of Sin as an outside and alien power that holds us all as slaves. That is the essence of the human condition. And if we are slaves, then by definition we do not have the power to free ourselves from its grip. Not only that, we realize that God must do something about the power of Sin over us because it has the power to corrupt and destroy all the goodness in God’s creation and creatures, us included. How can a loving God possibly let Sin go unchecked? What kind of God would allow evil, Sin, and death to reign indefinitely in God’s world to corrupt and dehumanize his image-bearing creatures? Judgment anyone?
This is the power of Sin and this is why repentance, while necessary to address the particular sins we commit, is not the solution to the problem of Sin in our lives. We are its slaves and without outside intervention and help, we are all hopelessly lost and under God’s loving and just judgment. I see some of you starting to get fidgety. Fr. Bowser’s eyes have rolled up into the back of his head. Fr. Sang has boarded a plane to Kenya. Fr. Gatwood didn’t even show up this morning. We thought this was Laetare Sunday, dude. You know, rejoice? So what are we supposed to be rejoicing about? You’ve painted an absolutely grim and depressing picture for us. Well, thank you. I live to depress. To be sure, I have not given a reason for us to rejoice at this point. I’ve described bad news, awful news, not Good News. And I’ve also described what I fear is the condition many of us labor under because many of us are blind to our self-help addiction. If you are one of those folks, it’s time to really hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The only way to defeat the power of Sin is to introduce a power greater than it, and that power of course is God. God has indeed dealt with evil, Sin, and death, but God dealt with them in a way that requires us to shed the blindness of our self-love and self-loathing. The Good News over which we rejoice is the NT proclamation that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15.3); that Christ died for the ungodly, you and me, while we were still ungodly (Romans 5.6); that on the cross God has dealt a decisive blow to evil to break its power over us (Colossians 2.13-15), and has given us his Spirit to live in us to empower us to live as the truly human beings God created us to be (Romans 8.1-16). Only when the power of Sin is broken so that it can no longer make us its slaves do we have good reason to rejoice. But that’s exactly the claim of the NT! God loves us too much to let us be held as slaves to the power of Sin and by the time we realize we are its slaves, we also realize that God has already acted decisively on our behalf to break its hold on us. To be sure, we are not fully free from sin until we die (Romans 6.7). But as Fr. John Wesley used to say, for those of us in Christ, while sin remains it no longer reigns over us.
What I am talking about is the power of God at work on our behalf to free us from the power of Sin and to prepare us to be part of God’s promised new world where we will have new bodies and be free from all sin, evil, hurt, heartache, sorrow, sighing, or separation from God and each other. And astonishingly, God demonstrated this power in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Without having the eyes of faith that are not blinded by our human pride and fear of being judged, we can never appropriate this Good News. But when by God’s grace we realize that God has already acted on our behalf to free us from our slavery to Sin, how can we not rejoice? It means we can abandon our futile attempts at self-help to deal with the problem of Sin. It means we can abandon our doubts that God really does love us and has acted to claim us forever. No wonder Paul resolved to glory in nothing but the cross and Christ crucified! In it is our freedom and release from our bondage to fear, evil, Sin, and death. Do you have the vision of faith to claim this power?
This is essentially what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson. He’s not telling us we have to follow a bunch of rules to be saved. He’s telling us just the opposite. He’s telling us to see the world in a fundamentally different way. God has already made us his. So how can we not be his light? How can we not, in the power of the Spirit (and only in the power of the Spirit), behave as people released from Sin’s power by the power of the cross? To summarize and close, then, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are freed from our bondage to evil, Sin, and death because God has acted decisively on our behalf to both free us and to put to right all that is wrong with this world. We must wait until Christ returns to see the full benefits of God’s saving act on our behalf. But rest assured, my beloved, it’s a done deal and that is reason for us to rejoice on this Laetare Sunday and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.