Sermon: Encounter with Christ #4 – the Blind Man
March 26th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: John 9:1-42
Here is a story from Ann Landers: Her friend, Mrs. Smith, had just undressed and was about to step into the shower when the doorbell rang. She hollered, “Who is it?” A voice came back, “It’s the blind man.” So she figured it was safe, and stark-naked she opened the door. The man looked at her in shock and asked, “Where do you want me to hang these blinds, lady?” (adapted from Ann Landers, The Washington Post, October 13, 1998).
It can be funny how people are labeled, but it can be a problem, too. The encounter with Christ that we have today speaks about labels that we put on others and put on ourselves. In this encounter, if we listen, we will hear a great conviction, a great hope, and a great commission.
I need to confess that I made a mistake on the script of the scripture reading we used a few minutes ago. I wasn’t quite sure what to call one of the characters – the one I labeled ‘Blind Man’. I mean, he started blind, but within the first few verses of the passage he is no longer blind, yet I continued with the same label, ‘Blind Man’. I wondered briefly if should call the character the “Man-who-used-to-be-blind”, or the “Man born-blind”, or the “Man-who-regained-his-sight”. I ended up opting for what seemed the simplest, but after page was printed I came to regret it.
I regretted it because I made the same mistake that the Pharisees do in this story, being unable to see beyond the man’s former limitation. Even the man’s neighbors have a hard time recognizing him without the fact of his blindness. When the man appears before the Pharisees, the narrator comments that the Pharisees were divided and that “they turned again to the blind man”. Of course at that point in the story the man is no longer blind, he can see, yet in their minds the Pharisees just cannot move beyond what he used to be. For them, the man’s former limitation was an indication of a former shame, a former sin. They rebuked the man with the words, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!”
I wonder how often we do that in our own lives. Do we label ourselves or others by some limiting factor or a difficult thing we have experienced? A few years ago advocates for people with disabilities started a Person-First campaign. Rather than calling someone ‘blind man’, saying ‘a person who is blind’ reminds us that he is a person first, blind second. Rather than the label Diabetic, saying ‘a person with diabetes’ reminds us that she is person first, with a diagnosis second. Rather than Disabled, we can say ‘a person who lost a leg’ – person first, challenge second. While that serves as a good reminder, it doesn’t really solve the problem as the label still remains.
Sometimes we use labels with the intention of recognizing what we have overcome. Like the label “cancer-survivor” is used to honor the struggle and celebrate the recovery. We use labels like “widowed” or “divorced”, to honor a significant relationship or recognize a journey through grief. And yet even these labels tend to reduce us to a single dimension, and they may link us more strongly to the past, rather than in the present or with a view to the future.
Jesus speaks some pretty strong words of conviction at the end of this encounter and in this Lenten season it may be just the time for us to hear that message. Lent is a good time to do an internal check, to do some self-examination: have I fallen into thought patterns in which I use limiting or condemning labels to myself or to others? Have I defined myself or others by a struggle or a failure, rather than by a transforming future through Christ? Am I so convinced of who I see as right or wrong that I have become blind to the humanity of the other person and blind to the work of God in another’s life, or in my own life? Have I become closed to grace, or hardened to hope?
The common understanding at the time of this encounter was that suffering was the result of sin. The disciples looked at the man born blind and didn’t wonder if someone sinned, they leaped straight to wondering who sinned. There was no question in their minds that the blindness was someone’s fault. When Job was grieving and suffering his friends insisted that Job must have done something wrong that had to be confessed in order to turn his tide of bad luck (some friends! ). When things go wrong, we really want something or someone to blame. The religious leaders are so tripped up by the temptation to assign blame and label sin that they are unable to see the evidence of God’s work right in front of them. In the Message translation, Jesus responds to the disciples’ question, saying, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
Jesus invites us to open our eyes to our faulty thinking, to the temptation to assign blame, to ask the wrong question, and instead look for God at work. We are not defined by our brokenness or by failures. God is about the work of creating, of making all things new, of transforming us into His new creation. God takes the chaos of this world, the suffering and the difficulties of our lives, and transforms it through Jesus, to make something beautiful that will produce praise. That is the great hope that is offered to us in this encounter with Christ, and Lent is a good time to proclaim the Good News! The man who encounters Jesus has his sight restored! It was a miracle! If only there had been someone who could have celebrated with him!
The song Amazing Grace is one that celebrates and proclaims the Good News. You may already know the story behind that song. It was written by John Newton, whose mother died when he was just 7 years old. At the age of 11, he ran away from school to join his father’s ship as a seaman. He lived a life of rebellion, arrogance and debauchery, losing jobs and moving from one ship to another, till eventually he was working on slave ships and involved in the capture, transport and selling of black slaves between Africa and the Americas. One night in the midst of a frightening storm at sea, he picked up a book and began reading about Jesus. He accepted Jesus as his Savior, began to see the cruelty of slavery. John Newton eventually became a pastor. He wrote songs to lead his congregation in proclaiming the Good News and their simple, heartfelt faith.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
The amazing grace of encountering Christ! The blind man in our story is found by Jesus – found twice! He was found first as he sat by the side of the road, begging. Unlike other encounters in which people come to Jesus for healing, this man did not go looking for him nor did he even ask to be relieved of his blindness. Jesus finds him; Jesus offers him sight. Later, when his healing and his testimony on behalf of Jesus gets him ostracized, snubbed his own by his parents and banished from his community, Jesus goes looking for him and finds him again. Jesus will come after us again and again, seeking his loss ones, offering true sight, true community and true family. Amazing grace!
The man is given sight not because of any great thing he accomplished or good deed he performed. The man is given sight out of God’s abundant grace and mercy. There is no limit on God’s grace, nor is it used up with repeated failures and struggles. No mistake is too big, no disability too severe. God’s grace is new every morning. There is enough for you, and for me, and for every single person who has ever lived on this earth. God is in the business of making all things new through the life and death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, and through the power of His Holy Spirit.
So what is the label that you need to be freed from today? What is it in your past that continues to define you? Is it some limitation or tragedy or challenge that you need to let go of and receive a new vision, a new future? Jesus invites us to go and wash off the labels that muddy our sense of being beloved children and faithful disciples. He wants us to open our eyes to the transforming work of God, to celebrate it in ourselves and in others, to recognize His presence among us.
Lent is a good time to examine ourselves and hear the Spirit’s conviction. It is a good time to hear again the great hope and love offered to us through Jesus Christ. Finally, Lent is a good time to recommit ourselves to being disciples of Jesus, and to be re-commissioned in His service.
As we look at the example of the man who is found, whose sight is restored, we see several things that we are called to do as followers of Jesus. First, we are called to obedience. Jesus puts mud onto the man’s eyes and directs him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam – a note in the story is that the word Siloam means Sent. Jesus sends him out and the man’s sight is restored in the process of his obeying Jesus’ instructions. We receive God’s instructions through the words of scripture, through prayer, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let us be obedient to those directives.
Once the man has received the amazing grace of new sight, he shares that great news with his neighbors and with the authorities. He witnesses to his healing; he tells about the One who healed him. We see his understanding of Jesus grow in the process of doing this. He begins by attributing the miracle to “the man they call Jesus.” A few verses later he just uses his name, “Jesus put mud on by eyes, and I washed, and now I see.” Then he declares that Jesus is a prophet, and finally he acknowledges him as the Son of Man, saying, “Lord, I believe,” and he worships Jesus. As we share our faith in Jesus, we grow in our understanding of him and our love for him.
Next, man accepts the responsibility to speak truth to power. He rejects the lies and condemnation and insults of the leaders; he exposes their blindness to God working right in their midst. He doesn’t do this with a raised voice or with stinging rebuke. He does it with humor and with joyfulness welling up and flowing out. He says it with simplicity, “One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see.”
Finally, he responds to Jesus with worship. Here at First Baptist we have affirmed in our mission statement that our first task, our first priority as disciples of Jesus Christ, is to worship God, and following that, to teach, encourage and practice discipleship. We lift our praise to God in songs and in prayers, we fill our hearts with gratitude for all that God has done, we worship. And then we take that message of God’s transformative work and God’s grand hope and future out into the community.
As I wrote this sermon, I decided to change the closing song for our worship this morning. While I love the song and the invitation to “Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth thou has for me, open my eye, illumine me, Spirit divine.” I heard another song welling up in my heart. It is a song about God changing our names. The words go:
I will change your name. You shall no longer be called Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid.
I will change your name. Your new name shall be Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One, Faithfulness, Friend of God, One who seeks God’s face.
Is the Spirit convicting you of a label, a name that roots you in the past, in brokenness, a name that God wants to change for you today? Is God giving you a new name, a name of hope and grace? Jesus changed the name of a man from “Blind” to “One who Truly Sees”. What name is He offering you today?
Closing song: I Will Change Your Name