Who Sinned? (and Other Distracting Questions)

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 4A, March 30, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this 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.

So why did that earthquake hit LA yesterday? Is this an indication of God’s judgment on all the corrupt living going on in CA? And the missing Malaysian jet? Who sinned so that all the passengers are apparently lost? John catches our attention immediately in our gospel lesson this morning by reporting that one of Jesus’ disciples asks Jesus a similar “why” question: “Who sinned, that this man is blind?” We love to ask questions like this, both among ourselves and to God, because as we shall see, they are so deliciously distracting. But Scripture is remarkably reticent in answering our “why” questions. Instead, Scripture focuses more on answering the what and how questions and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

When we ask God and each other “why” questions, we are essentially asking about God’s justice. Why do bad things happen to people? Is it a matter of God’s version of quid pro quo where we get a reward for doing good and get whacked for doing evil? Now on one level Scripture is clear about why bad things happen to people. God created his world good but human sin and evil have corrupted it and caused God’s curse to fall on both his creation and creatures (Genesis 3.1-24). The resulting darkness about which John speaks in his prologue creates all kinds of moral, spiritual, psychological, and physical chaos, and as humans we try to make sense of the chaos. We want to know, for example, why evil (the snake) was in paradise in the first place. But Scripture gives us no answer. The entire book of Job addresses the problem of evil in God’s good world. And while we are given some insight into the source of at least some evil (Satan), at the end of the day, Job’s questions about why God allows evil to operate remain unanswered even as Job’s whole ordeal provides a devastating critique of traditional Jewish thinking on rewards and punishment: good things happen to righteous people and bad things happen to unrighteous people. But Job was a righteous man and he still suffered massively.

Now here in our gospel lesson we have Jesus’ disciples asking him to confirm their thinking about how God’s justice works. They assumed that because the blind man had been born blind, it was because he or his parents were sinners, i.e., here was another example of an unrighteous man and/or his family getting their just desserts. It is exactly the same kind of thinking that the Pharisees used against the blind man and Jesus as they sought to discredit the healing itself, the healed, and the healer. But Jesus would have none of that kind of thinking and we need to take our cue from both his response and the story that follows (cf. Mark 10.23-27).

Instead of explaining to his disciples and us why the man was born blind, Jesus tells us that it provided God an opportunity to work through him to bring God’s light and healing to his world created good but corrupted by sin and evil, i.e., to bring God’s order to chaos, and he promptly healed the blind man. This healing is even more remarkable because as neurologists will remind us, for a man born blind to be able to see immediately, two miracles needed to occur. The man’s eyes needed to be healed and his brain circuitry needed to be rewired to allow him to make sense of what he was seeing because there would have been no mental schemata in his brain to help him organize and make sense of these brand new visual data. For those of us who are born with sight, we take this seeing business for granted because we have spent a lifetime learning how to make sense of the various visual data to which we are exposed. But for one born blind, learning to make sense of the data would require new learning and this normally takes time. But not in this case. The man was able to see and immediately make sense of what he was seeing! None of this should surprise us, of course, because nothing is too hard for God. After all, God is the God who calls into existence things that don’t exist and gives life to the dead (Romans 4.17). This healing therefore has all the marks of being genuinely God-given.

We also notice in this story that we are watching John’s themes of light and darkness that he introduced in his prologue being played out in real life and this is what we need to pay attention to. Here we see a powerful example of God working in his good but broken world to heal it and put it to rights. We see the very heart and love of God for his hurting and broken creatures at work, the same heart and love of God that we read about in Psalm 23 this morning. Here is what John means when he told us earlier that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1.5). It is the same light we ultimately see in Jesus’ resurrection that overcame the terrible darkness of Good Friday so that we can actually call that awful day good because it signaled God’s victory over evil, sin, and death and as we saw last week, our reconciliation with God made possible only by the blood of the Lamb shed for us.

The same light of God’s healing love and goodness that shined so brightly for the blind man is also available to us and our world today to heal and redeem us, to reclaim our dark and broken lives so that we might live in the light of God’s love and new creation revealed in this story and most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection. That is why we need to read stories like John’s on a regular basis because they remind us of God’s great love for us and that he has both the desire and power to heal all the sin and brokenness of our lives and world. This helps us commit our darkness to Jesus’ love and power and see what he does with it (and us).

All this takes faith on our part, of course, especially because Jesus is no longer available to us in his bodily presence as he was to the blind man, and this can cause us to wonder if Jesus is really with us after all. But he is available to us in the power of the Spirit and through his people, and here we must also pay attention to the warning about spiritual pride and closed-mindedness. Are we going to be like Jesus’ opponents with their preconceived notions of how God should work in his world and our lives, notions that are almost always wrong or distorted (after all, they challenged the healing and the healer!), so that their closed-mindedness and hard hearts caused them to reject the light of God’s love clearly offered in Jesus and powerfully demonstrated in the healing of the blind man so that they had no other option than to incur God’s judgment? Or are we going to be like the blind man and be open to the light of God’s love and healing power for us so that we allow ourselves to follow Jesus’ light as we walk through our own dark valleys? As John’s story reminds us, this is not always a clear-cut or simple proposition because the darkness of human sin and evil produces chaos and unpredictability of all kinds and our path is not always immediately clear. Note, for example, the confusion in the story. Was the man really born blind? Who really healed him? Was Jesus really from God? etc. But the promise of our gospel lesson is that despite the chaos, Jesus really is present to us to heal and rescue us from our darkness, even if it doesn’t look like what we hoped for or expected. Do you believe this? If you do, it’s a game-changer.

And precisely because Jesus is available to us in and through the power of the Spirit and in Jesus’ people gathered together in his name, we need to pay attention to what Paul tells us in our epistle lesson. We are made God’s holy people by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross and in the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, individually and collectively as the Church. We are called to be God’s holy people in Jesus so that we can continue to embody God’s love for his broken and hurting world to others, which means we cannot go on living in our old selfish and sin-sick ways. Instead, we are called to imitate Jesus in all our living so that he can work in and through us to bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. This is what we are saved for and when we live faithfully to Jesus by embodying his self-giving love to everyone, he will happily use us to bring his light to the world to expose its darkness to either heal or judge it.

When we read commands like this, our natural tendency is for us to think that Paul is telling us to go about angrily denouncing sinners (who conveniently happen to be everybody else but us) and judging them. But I do not think this is what Paul had in mind (cf. Acts 17.16-34). When, for example, we forgive our enemies when they hurt us instead of seeking to exact revenge, we expose the darkness of their hatred toward us for what it is and leave it open to the light of God’s love to heal. When we live sacrificially or meet our suffering with real hope and courage so that people stop and notice (and not always in a good way) how we are handling ourselves, we are exposing the dark and selfish ways of the world (it’s all about me and my needs) that those ways may be healed. When we refuse to worship the false gods of money, sex, and power as they are being played out currently in our society, we expose them for the false idols they are that they may be rejected. Or when we are courageous enough to speak the truth of Jesus Christ to his enemies just like the blind man did, we are exposing the darkness of their thinking to the light of Christ’s truth so that it might change. Notice carefully that the blind man did not get personal or judgmental with his adversaries. He simply exposed the flaw of their logic and thinking and essentially asked them to repent.

In other words, we do this to invite others into a saving relationship with Jesus, just like the blind man did with his examiners, so that they too will be healed and not have to face God’s terrible judgment! Of course, when by our faithful living and speaking we expose the world’s darkness for what it is, we should expect to receive on occasion the kind of reaction the blind man received. His opponents reviled him and excommunicated him from the life of his community (the synagogue). But this reviling is part of what it means to deny ourselves and take up our cross as we follow Jesus.

And so we return to our original question this morning. Why did this bad thing happen to the blind man? We are not given a direct answer to that question. Instead we are given a story of how Jesus embodies the love of God to bring healing and relief to God’s sin-sick world and our call as his people to do likewise. As we have seen, following Jesus is not easy because people love to live in their darkness rather than in the light of Jesus and this is the challenge that confronts us, especially during Lent. Are we working hard at putting to death all the darkness in us that wants to keep us hostile to God or are we too busy speculating about other people’s sins so that we can remain sufficiently distracted from dealing with our own? This is what happened to Jesus’ opponents and what can happen to us when we focus on the “why” questions.

So let us live as children of light, challenging as that is. Take hope as you embrace the challenge by remembering that our path to glory is through our suffering, just like Jesus’ path to glory was through his suffering. He is present with us right now in the power of the Spirit and through his people to heal and sustain us. And he promises to be with us forever in the new creation that will come in full one day when he returns in great power and glory. If you really believe that, folks, you can rejoice in all circumstances of your life because you know you have Good News, now 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.