Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
"He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes." (John 9:6) What a marvelous way to get across the earthiness of Jesus. Remember, this is the Creator of the universe making mud pies with his spit. The Lord God Almighty getting his hands dirty, slapping some gunk on a guy's face and saying "here's mud in your eye!" The messiness of ministry. A divine miracle in mud and water. Supernatural spit. This has all the makings of a great story.
And it gets even better. The actual healing happens in just two verses near the beginning of chapter 9. As is typical of John’s gospel, the narrator then takes pains to move beyond the healing miracle itself to the variety of reactions to it, recording 30-something verses of dialogue following the dip in the Siloam pool, only some of which we’ve read aloud this morning. So let's take a moment to review highlights from the rest of the chapter.
The first thing that happens after the blind man has been healed is that some confusion arises about the man's identity. Some who'd seen him before were sure this was the man who used to sit and beg, while others thought maybe it was someone else who looked like him. Why the confusion? Well, certainly because no one expected a blind man suddenly to be given his sight. But I wonder if his blindness and his begging posture were to some of those who passed by him everyday also his most distinguishing characteristics. When suddenly this same man had his sight and was walking around among them, maybe he looked different to them? Perhaps they'd never looked all that carefully at him before? In any event, it's while people are busy talking about him in the third person ("Is this the man?") that he identifies himself to them for the first time: "I am he," and notice, he keeps saying it as the questions continue. In answer to their bewilderment about the alleged miracle, "then how were your eyes opened?" the text says he keeps telling them exactly what has happened, though he is unable to tell them where this Jesus is who healed him.
If scene one was the healing miracle itself and scene two is the confrontation between the healed man and his neighbors, now we've come to scene three: they bring the man to the Pharisees, presumably to see if they can explain what's happened. But they just ask the man the same question about how he'd received his sight, and he gives them the same simple answer: "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see."
Then a new problem arises. Since this healing took place on the Sabbath, they’re concerned that the healer may have disobeyed Sabbath law and therefore may not be a man of God. Notice the shift in the topic of conversation. Instead of worrying about something inexplicable, they're focusing their attention on something they can understand. This alleged healing is strange and frightening, but Sabbath rules, those we can debate. Let's move this discussion into the realm of the law, and we'll have a better handle on it.
Whether or not Jesus actually violated the Sabbath law is unclear. I’m not entirely convinced he did, and that’s probably the topic for another whole sermon. But even if that werethe case, what should they make of the fact that a sinner would have then performed a miracle? So they ask the healed man a new question: "What do yousay about him? It was your eyes he opened." Fair question. But they don't much like the answer, "he is a prophet."
Scene four: the parents' turn. "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he see?" Of course Mom and Dad haven't a clue howhe can see. They just repeat what we already know: that he was born blind, and now he sees. And then, for fear of the authorities, tell their questioners to direct all further inquiries to Junior.
All right, let’s review the options for a rational explanation of the formerly blind man’s claim. Maybe he isn't the same guy. Well, actually he is. Maybe the person who supposedly healed him was actually breaking the law. Well, maybe or maybe not, but then how do we explain what happened? OK, maybe this guy who's claiming to have been healed was never really blind in the first place. Except that his parents can testify to that, and they should know. Maybe none of the easy explanations are working. And so in scene five they call the healed man in for questioning again, this time with an even greater sense of urgency: "Give glory to God! We know that this man [you're talking about must be] a sinner."
And then comes the best part of the story, the chutzpah of this healed man, a man who used to beg from people like these, now apparently fed up with their unwillingness to believe him, and brave enough to state his case on a whole new level. "I've already told you what happened. Why do you keep asking? Do you also want to be his disciples?" He continues: "Here is an astonishing thing! You don't know where [this man] comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. . . If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
Throughout the story, the healed man has continued to say the same thing. Here's what I don't know; here's what I know. I don't know where the man is who healed me. I don't know how he did it, and I don't know if he's a sinner. But thisI know: that though I was blind, now I see. In the end it all boils down to what one scholar calls "the irrefutable logic of experience." In answer to all the questions they can throw at him, the man born blind just keeps saying: Hey, I was there. It happened to me.
It's really the same logic we use when we talk to people about our faith, isn't it? I may not have all the details straight. I may not have the most eloquent words to describe my experience. And there’s a lot I just plain don’t know. But thisI know: that Jesus Christ is real to me. That God has made a difference in my life.
Incidentally, I’ve been giving myself permission to employ this same distinction in speaking about other issues I believe are close to God’s heart too. Here’s what I don’t know; here’s what I know. For instance, I’ll admit there are some complexities to current US immigration law that I’m not fully on top of, but this I know for sure: that children’s lives continue to hang in the balance on our border. That their hearts and spirits are being harmed by drawn-out political fights between adults. That as people of God we cannot stand by and say nothing when other human beings are called an “infestation” or when families with children are herded together in detention camps. Our nation has been there, done that, and ought to know better. God’s heart is breaking as this unfolds, and ours should too. God’s sense of justice cannot allow this, and neither should we. This much I know.
To return to our text, you may have noticed that so far I haven't addressed the opening dialogue between Jesus and his disciples when they first meet the man born blind. It's vitally important that we notice what's said there, so let's rewind back to the beginning of the chapter. "As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'" Jesus responds rather more gently than I think I would have, explaining simply that "neither this man nor his parents sinned." But what an awful thing for the disciples to have said! To imply that a man's lack of sight demonstrated sinfulness! What could they have been thinking?
One possibility, I suppose, is that they weren't thinking. The text says as they were all walking along, Jesus noticed this man blind from birth. I imagine he stopped in front of the man for a moment; perhaps the disciples were just trying to break the awkward silence by blurting out the first thing that came into their minds. But this isn't the kind of thing you'd blurt out unless on at least some level you thought it was a reasonable thing to say. Nor was this probably the first time the man born blind had heard it said about him.
In fact, behind the disciples' question lies a long history of biblical questions about the role of God in human suffering. Any of you who've read the book of Job will be familiar with the problem and with some of its proposed solutions; Job makes it clear there aren’t always simple answers. At least in this lifetime, the wicked are notalways punished and the faithful arenotalways rewarded. And thank heaven the Bible admits this, because any weeks’ news cycle – or for that matter a stroll down any hospital hallway - gives ample evidence of that painful truth.
But before we're too rough on the disciples for their question about the blind man's sin, which simply reminds us that the book of Job didn't successfully settle the question once and for all, think about how easy it is for us to revert to this kind of logic even today. Either in a casual way: "What have I done to deserve this?!" Or in response to tragedy: "There must have been a reason." It hasn't only been in the ancient world that popular theology has seen a connection between misfortune and sin, between suffering and a lack of faith. But Jesus makes it clear here; neither this man nor his parents sinned. His blindness has nothing to do with anything they may have done or left undone. Neither, by the way, does her breast cancer, or his depression, or their miscarriage or that hurricane. Sometimes bad things just happen, and to good people. That's the reality of life. That's the irrefutable logic of our experience in this world.
But it’s the second part of what Jesus says about the blind man in John 9:3 that’s a little more difficult for me. The part where he explains, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blindso that God's works might be revealed in him." Here Jesus shifts the focus of attention from the past to the future, from the cause of the man's blindness to some good which may come out of it, from what just is to what can yet be. So far so good. What I have trouble with is generalizing from particular instances like this one, as if every situation of human suffering will necessarily result in something good. There are too many tragedies in this world that seem to defy godly explanations. There are too many children of God suffering so deeply it would be crass to say they do so in order that some great purpose might come about.
But in this case, Jesus does say about this man's blindness: look, here was a terrific opportunity for God to act. And act magnificently, to this man's great benefit and the crowd's amazement, is precisely what Jesus does here in John 9. That good ends don't always come about from situations of suffering doesn't mean that they never can. And we can certainly be grateful to God when they do.
As our community of faith gathers for worship each week, we come with a wide variety of experiences. Among us are some who've experienced amazing healing, and some who have longed for it for years and notreceived it. Some may have even been on the receiving end of hurtful words in times of pain. And some just wish they could be patched up with some magical mud from our Savior's hands. Jesus Christ, our Great Physician, our Gracious Comforter stands ready to welcome us all.
So come as you are. May you find what you need.
And perhaps someday, without any obligation to answer every question that may be asked about how God works in the world, you’ll be given an opportunity to tell your small piece of the story. Perhaps like this man in John 9, you’ll be able to say: “Look, there are any number of things I don’tknow, but this much is clear to me.” Or “here’s what I’m not sure about, but here’s how God found me, reached me, helped me.”
In other words, “This? This I know…”
Sloyan, John, 125.