“Light & Sight” Colchester Federated Church, March 19, 2023, (John 9:1-41) Fourth Sunday in Lent

On this Fourth Sunday in Lent, we have another Gospel story of Jesus having a long conversation and transformative encounter with somebody who happens to cross his path.  In this season of Lent, we’ve moved from Jesus tempted in the wilderness by the devil to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus about being born anew.  We’ve moved from Jesus offering the Samaritan Woman at the Well living water to Jesus, the light of the world, healing a man born blind. 

Today Jesus is just walking along when he sees this blind man.  His disciples notice Jesus’ gaze and inquire as to who sinned so that this man was born blind in the first place—this man or his parents?  It’s hard to get further into this story without pausing for a moment to question this belief.  Is that what people thought?  Well, sometimes, as it turns out.  Illness and disability were sometimes believed to be caused by sin.  Jews like Jesus and his disciples could look to texts from Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Second Chronicles to make their case as to the circumstances.[1]  However, Jesus relates that neither this man nor his parents sinned, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”[2]

Keep in mind that John is all about signs and that is how he refers to Jesus’ miracles.  Throughout John’s Gospel, signs are what lead people to true faith in Jesus as Messiah.  In fact, John wrote explicitly in Chapter 20, “Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll.  But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.”[3]  Jesus performed signs like turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana and feeding the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus walked on water and performed various healings during his ministry.  A sign to reveal Jesus’ identity is exactly what happens in this story when the blind man is healed.  Next Sunday we will hear about the raising of Lazarus in Bethany.  Yet another sign. 

We could argue that today’s sign of healing the blind man shows Jesus’ full divinity and humanity.  Yes, this is a story of a miraculous healing—a sign of Jesus as the Messiah.  But we see Jesus spitting on the ground and making mud with his saliva.  Jesus smears the mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool so that he could ultimately see for the first time in his whole life.  When questioned by those in power, the healed man states that Jesus “put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.”[4]  This healing story does not present an image of a removed philosophical Messiah delivering messages from on high.  Not in the least.  This is an image of a man present with us in the middle of our messy lives.  Our lives full of joy and sorrow.  Our lives full of light and shadows.  Our lives full of mud and spit and bodies sometimes in need of healing.

Jesus sees this man and has compassion.  That’s how the story begins.  “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth.”[5]  Just like Jesus truly saw the woman at the well in Samaria and Nicodemus when he came to see him in the night.  This is a story about healing and sight, but in a deeper way.  Jesus sees this man born blind from birth and doesn’t judge him or his parents the way that others have previously.  He doesn’t immediately condemn the man or his parents as sinners who caused the blindness. 

In turn, and after experiencing the sign, the man sees Jesus for who he truly is.  The man has the audacity to defend Jesus to the religious leaders, “This is incredible!  You don’t know where he is from, yet he healed my eyes!  We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners.  God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will.  No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind.  If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.”[6]  Remember that the story ends with the man telling Jesus that he believes that Jesus is the Human One (or “Son of Man” depending on the translation).[7]  It ends with a beautiful declaration of faith.

If we believe that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, then that belief says something about how we see God.  It says something about how we think God works.  Because this Gospel story shows Christ with us in the mess and mud, not above humanity or far removed from our human experiences.  This story that we hear in the midst of Lent says something about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.    

Over many months I have been making my way through reading The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin (The Riverside Years, Volume 2) and finally finished this 600-page book this week.  During his ministry, Coffin was the Chaplain at Yale, pastored the Riverside Church in New York City, and fought for civil rights and nuclear disarmament.  If you regularly hear me preach, you have heard me reference Coffin before and it’s safe to say that you will again! 

Perhaps his most famous sermon is “Alex’s Death” delivered on January 23, 1983.  William Sloane Coffin eulogized his own son, Alex, who died at the age of 24 in a car accident.  Here’s a particularly powerful section of that sermon: “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said.”

“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness . . . The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”[8]

“God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”  Knowing that William Sloane Coffin preached these words at his own son’s funeral is hard to fathom.  It is unbelievably moving to know that amid his own tragedy he preached about God’s compassion and that Christ did spend an inordinate amount of time delivering people from their wounds and restoring them to wholeness.  We have seen this over and again in these long Lenten Gospel texts.  These words of hope can help us still. 

In the end, when we face pain and tragedy, God’s heart is the first heart to break.  I happen to believe that to be true.  Jesus the Christ—the light of the world—came to heal those places where we are broken.  Jesus came not to judge the world, but to save the world.  To heal the world.  To give us an example to live by as we walk in the way of love and light.  To give us an example to change our hearts and our lives for the better. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Footnote on John 5:1-47 in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, 2011 edition, pg. 168.
[2] John 9:3, CEB.
[3] John 20:30-31, CEB.
[4] John 9:15, CEB.
[5] John 9:1, CEB.
[6] John 9:30-33, CEB.
[7] John 9:35, NRSV.
[8] William Sloane Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2, pgs. 3-4.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout.