Lent 4A Sermon (2023)

4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 9:1-41;
Ephesians 5:8-14

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/5cagkvgCBdY


Let’s read the first three verses again:

As Jesus was going along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Teacher,” his disciples asked him, “whose sin was it that caused this man to be born blind? Did he sin, or did his parents?” “He didn’t sin,” replied Jesus, “nor did his parents. It happened so that God’s works could be seen in him.

We’ve been talking about this Lenten season about sin. As we can see in these three verses — and in this whole long story, since the Pharisees take up the disciples’ way of seeing sin — what we might come to learn is how Jesus seems to redefine what sin generally is for us human beings. The disciples and Pharisees represent how we human beings generally see sin. Jesus comes to invite us to see the matter differently.

In fact, John the Gospel writer gives us a big clue in the opening words: “Jesus saw a man blind from birth.” In the Greek there’s an oddity here. The word for “man” is anthrōpos, which is also the Greek word more generally for “human being.” That’s where we get our word anthropology, the study of what it means to be a human being, a person. But the oddity in John’s sentence is that he leaves out the article “a.” Strictly speaking, it’s not just a person, a man, that Jesus sees. With the article left out, the most literal translation would be, “Jesus saw humanity blind from birth.” (John loves those multiple levels of meaning.) Yes, John tells us up-front. That’s what this long story in John 9 is really all about. Humanity has suffered a blindness since our birth as a species. And that revolves around our mistaken notions of sin, which are revealed first by the disciples, and then by the Pharisees.

It is easy for Jesus to cure the man’s literal, physical blindness. It is not easy for him to cure humanity’s blindness to our mistaken notions of sin. The story ends with Jesus telling the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty of sin. But now, because you say, ‘We can see,’ your sin remains.” Being literally blind is not a sin. How human beings have treated blind people throughout much of history that is the sin — it’s a prime example of our overall mistaken notions about what sin is.

This has been our Lenten theme since beginning on the First Sunday of Lent with the story of the fall into sin in Genesis 2 and 3 (Lent 1A). Most often, we interpret the fall into sin strictly in terms of disobedience. There’s a law code in place, and if we disobey it, that represents a sin needing to be punished. The man and woman disobey the command to not eat of one of the trees in the garden, so they are punished. But we suggested three weeks ago that there’s much more to this story than simple crime and punishment. The forbidden fruit of which they ate was from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent convinces them of a conspiracy of God holding out on them, of God not wanting them to know good and evil as God does. So the fall into sin was much more than disobedience. It was believing and accepting the lie from the serpent that God is in rivalry with them. When we believe in a punishing God instead of a life-giving and healing God, we become more like that false god we believe in. We think we know good and evil in ways that place us into rivalry with God. And rivalry with God means living our lives in rivalry with everyone. It means seeing the world, seeing our lives, constantly in terms of Us-vs-Them.

So the Second Sunday in Lent we met Nicodemus, a leader of his Jewish culture and religion (Lent 2A). And Jesus tells him that in order to enter the reign of God, he must do nothing less than being born again from above. What does this mean? It means learning to drop the lens of constant rivalry, the lens of Us-vs-Them thinking, and come to see the world as God does — God the Creator who loves everything and everyone. God isn’t in the business of looking for sin and punishing it. God is in the business of seeing wherever the creation is heading for a dead-end and working to restore it to the right path. A creator God. A restoring God. A healing God. That’s the work of God which Jesus refers to in John 9. The work of creating. We have to create. We have to restore. We have to care for one another.

So back in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that God so loves the world, that God sent the Son to save it, not to judge it. In our judging the Son and executing him on the cross, if God is judging anything it is our wrong-headed judging. Our judgment against Jesus is God’s judgment against us. But on Easter, we see that even that judgment comes as forgiveness, and as the invitation to new life. Amazing Grace! We are invited to stop judging everything as good and bad in terms of our needing to punish it, expel it, get rid of it. Instead, we are invited to forgive wrongs and to love in order to work towards healing, restoration, and new life. We were blind, but now we can see.

That’s exactly what we see in John 9, right? Wearing their Us-vs-Them lens, the disciples see the man’s blindness as a punishment for sin. “No!” says Jesus. The man’s blindness has not been an occasion for punishment. Rather, it’s an occasion for God’s work of helping life to flourish. It’s an occasion for seeing a healing God and a restoring God, an occasion of helping the man be restored to full dignity as a child of God, rather than being reduced to life as a beggar.

The long debate with the Pharisees reveals the same dynamics. The want to see everything in terms of sin as disobeying law codes and being punished. They are confused and divided at first because this man who had been blind can now see. But they find a reason to expel him in the end, and that reason is for following Jesus. Through their Us-vs-Them lens, they conclude that since Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, he had disobeyed the laws of Moses and was a sinner. They expel the formerly blind man for following this sinner Jesus. In a little while, they will expel Jesus, too, convincing Pilate to sentence him to death on a cross.

What about us two thousand years later? Have we had our blindness about sin healed yet? Have we been born again from above to see the world as God sees it? Namely, as in need of further creativeness, of healing, restoration, and loving care? Not in terms of defects needing punishment?

There are hopeful signs that humanity is being cured of its blindness. Science and modern medicine is one of the biggest signs for me. Science intentionally drops the Us-vs-Them thinking in order to see things as they are, to understand how things work and to make it better if we can. When we see illness, for example, modern medicine no longer sees sins being punished, like the disciples and Pharisees saw in the man born blind. Modern medicine sees diseases to be treated and healed, when possible. And if there isn’t a cure for an illness, we look for ways to help the person live their lives to the fullest. Modern medicine is a hopeful sign for me. The recent politics of division in the face of a pandemic, however, signals the age-old blindness of Us-vs-Them.

Other signs of hope? Our progress in working against things like slavery, racism, sexism, and discrimination against differently-abled persons also bring signs of hope. We increasingly learn to see the world less in terms of Us-vs-Them, in which we find law-codes justifying things like men oppressing women, or white people oppressing people of color; and we begin to work toward everyone having an equal chance to find and pursue what most helps them to flourish. There’s still a long ways to go, of course, and we won’t get there if we work to remain blind to our past and present discriminations and failures. But I think we’ve shown signs of promise and hope that we’re on the right path — if we also work to heal the Us-vs-Them thinking in our politics which throw up roadblocks to our progress.

These are some of the signs of healing of our blindness. Where are we still showing signs of blindness? I’d like to talk about that for a few minutes in our Bible study today. I hope you stay for that.

Otherwise, let’s end with a word of amazing grace — a word about “Amazing Grace.” We end our worship this morning singing the well-loved hymn written by John Newton in the late 1700’s. Do you know that story? Newton had begun his adult life as a sea captain, and during those years found himself captaining ships bearing enslaved peoples from Africa to Europe and America. Newton, by God’s amazing grace had his blindness to that sin healed. He stopped seeing the issue in terms of Us-vs-Them and was able to see the enslaved Africans as fellow human beings deserving of freedom and full dignity. He quit captaining slave ships and became a pastor working toward the abolition of slavery. “I was blind, but now I see.” That’s the cure for humanity’s blindness that we all seek. To quit seeing the world in terms of a God who’s looking to punish sins of disobedience. And to see a God of grace, a God who is always seeking to set us on the right path of helping us and the creation to flourish — of doing the proper work of God in caring for one another and for the creation. That’s the work we’re called to do. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 19, 2023

YouTube version: https://youtu.be/5cagkvgCBdY

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