Readings 1 Samuel 16:1-13. John 9:1-41. (NRSV)
I saw a Facebook post during the week with the heading “Four reasons to watch church online”.
1: No parking problems. 2: You can refill your coffee any time. 3: You can relax in your pyjamas. Though a word of caution there. If you do that, make sure you know how to turn off your camera feed first.
4: You can mute the Pastor. If you know how to do that, I’d like to encourage you to resist the urge.
Last Sunday my topic was “Life-giving water from the Rock” and we looked at an OT story and a NT story with a water theme. My sermon title today is “Sight and Insight from the Light”. Again, we’ll be looking at two stories, one from the NT and then, just briefly, one from the OT. Both are lectionary readings for this 4th Sunday of Lent. To keep things simple while we are getting used to the new technology, there is no sermon Power Point today. We should be right without one.
The story in John 9 about Jesus healing a man who had been blind from birth occurs only in John’s Gospel. It is a long narrative with various cycles and developments. That alerts us to the fact that this is a very important story for John.
John records 7 great “I Am” statements from Jesus – statements that point to his divine nature and mission.
Some of you, including Merilyn’s pop-up group on Monday nights, have been looking at these statements using Lenten studies produced by Common Grace. These are readily available on-line. I recommend them for spiritual input, even if you can’t get to that group or if you are in isolation.
In John 9 we have the 6th “I Am” statement and it is a key to understanding the significance of the whole story. V5: “I am the light of the world.”
Straight after that Jesus spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, spread the mud on the man’s eyes, and told him to go and wash it off in a nearby pool. The man comes back able to see.
The healing Jesus performs is a demonstration of the truth he is proclaiming – “I am the light of the world”.
The man had never been able to see. He had been blind since birth. But Jesus heals him, bringing light into his life for the first time. Much to the surprise of his parents and neighbours and much to the chagrin of the Pharisees.
But this story isn’t just about the man receiving physical sight. He also receives spiritual insight. That comes progressively as the Pharisees interrogate him (on 2 occasions) and then as Jesus follows him up and talks with him. Initially he tells the Pharisees he was healed by “the man called Jesus” (v10), then tells them Jesus is a prophet (v17) and later still that he was from God (v33). In his conversation with Jesus at the end of the chapter, he says that he believes Jesus is the Son of Man (v35-38), a title with Messianic overtones.
There is a deliberate and dramatic contrast here between the man and the Pharisees, or at least some of them. They remain stubbornly convinced that Jesus is not from God – that he is not the divine Messiah.
Their view was that Jesus couldn’t be from God because he broke the sabbath laws. (v16).
One law he broke was the prohibition on kneading on the Sabbath.1 He did that by mixing his spit and dirt to make mud. He also broke the law prohibiting healing on the Sabbath, except in life-threatening situations.
Jesus didn’t have to mix up some mud in order to heal the man. There are other instances where Jesus healed blind men by just touching their eyes or by just speaking. And Jesus could have waited till the end of the sabbath to heal the man. One more day wouldn’t have made that much difference to him, seeing that he had been blind all his life.
Jesus seems to heal this man in a way that deliberately flouts the Pharisees’ laws. He does so in order to make a very important point. The lesson is reinforced through dialogue at the end of the chapter. Some of the Pharisees say to Jesus (v40): “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
Jesus responds by saying they are. Not blind physically, but blind spiritually. Their rituals and legalism had blinded them to the truth about Jesus.
By way of application, let me tell you a little story I made up.
Once upon a time, in a far away country, a miracle worker travelled around the countryside.
- One day a blind man named Bartimaeus called out to this miracle worker – “Son of David, have mercy on me.” He stopped and said a few words and the man was healed. He was so thankful that he and his family and friends would gather every week to remember the miracle worker and what he had done. As they met, they would expectantly call out numerous times “Son of David, have mercy on me”. Soon someone wrote a song based on those words and they would sing it every week. Eventually the man who had been healed died, but the group kept meeting and remembering and singing their song.2
- In another part of the country, the miracle worker healed another blind man. He was partially healed when the miracle worker spat on his eyes and touched them. Full healing came when the miracle worker touched his eyes a second time. Every week he and his family and friends would gather to remember the miracle worker and what he had done. The healed man would splash water into each person’s eyes and then touch them twice to remind them of what the miracle worker did. After the healed man died, they continued meeting to do this, emphasising the necessity of the second touch.3
- On another occasion, the miracle worker healed another blind man by spitting on the ground and making some mud which he then rubbed into the man’s eyes. When the blind man washed it off, he could see. Every week he and his family and friends would gather to remember the miracle worker and what he did. They would make mud and put it on their eyelids and then wash it off. Even after the healed man died, they kept on doing this, emphasising the importance of the water.4
From time to time people from one group would encounter some from one of the other groups and they would argue over whose meetings were right and honoured the miracle worker the most. Over the years enmity developed as each group staunchly practised and promoted its particular rituals.
Eventually the focus of those in each group shifted away from the miracle worker. Their vision of him became less and less clear to the point where there was no vision at all. Despite their rituals, or was it because of them, very few of them ever seemed to be cured of their blindness.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The OT reading is also about seeing, but in a different sense – seeing not with our eyes but with our heart, mind and soul.
This passage begins: “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul?’“ (v1a)
Samuel had anointed Saul as the first king of Israel but Saul had failed. God now tells Samuel it’s time for him to stop grieving over that, to move on, and go and anoint a replacement.
Samuel goes to the house of Jesse as God instructs. When Samuel sees the oldest son, he is sure that this is the one he is meant to anoint as Saul’s successor. But God has an important lesson for him.
V7b: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Seven of Jesse’s sons are paraded in turn before Samuel, but God says none of them is the one God has chosen. In the end, the youngest, David, is called in from looking after the sheep. God tells Samuel to anoint him.
This is a story about God-given insight about leadership. Let me remind you that this is the OT lectionary reading for today. It seems a particularly apt one for our Church at the moment, having lost one of our Pastors last year and needing to consider pastoral leadership for the future.
“How long will you grieve over Saul?” God asks. The time inevitable comes to move on.
As we do, we need to make sure that we are not making decisions on the basis of outward appearance, mere externalities if you like, such as a sparkling CV. God looks on the heart and that’s the crucial thing.
Because we are not omnipotent, that is harder for us to do. That’s where careful and prayerful discernment comes in. In other words, God-given insight.
That’s not a simple or easy process, and it is one that has the potential for mishearing, missteps and mistakes. But if we continue to focus on Jesus, the light who gives sight and insight, and not on ritual, we will have the guidance we need.
As you undertake that process this year and possibly well into next year, I pray that all goes well with you.
- R. O’Day, John, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.654.
- Mark 10:46ff; Luke 18:35ff; Matthew 20:29ff. See also Matthew 9:27ff.
- Mark 8:22ff.
- John 9:1ff