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March 26, 2017

Sermon for March 26, 2017

“Is Seeing Believing?” by Dan Fowler

 John 9:1-41


I have a picture of me and my family from when we first arrived at my last call a little over 14 years ago. Notice the brown hair, facial hair and lack of glasses I had? Well obviously, things have changed a bit. Now I wear glasses, trifocals in fact, and my hair has grayed a bit, and there’s a bit less of it on top of my head, as my daughter so lovingly loves to point out. Not too long ago I received notice from the DMV that I could receive a renewal for my driver’s license through mail. You will notice now on my new license it has these words underneath my date of birth which gave me great pause- RESTRICTED- CORRECTIVE LENSES. I received that notice the last time I applied for a renewal, because I couldn’t read the eye chart very well at the DMV office without my glasses. Now my sight is officially “restricted.” For what it is worth, my optometrist says I suffer from “Presbyopia” which seems appropriate for a Presbyterian…


Today’s passage isn’t just about a miraculous healing, or a blind man receiving his sight. It has to do with a different form of “restricted vision”-spiritual blindness. The matter at hand is the way in which we view this world- Either God is at work, bringing change, bringing hope, bringing healing, and we can see it- or we live in a world that is going nowhere, where nothing good is happening, it is all a matter of time before the whole thing just implodes upon itself,  God is either indifferent or nonexistent, and our vision of faith is restricted. By the end of today’s sermon, you’ll have to decide for yourself if your CFL, your “Christian Faith License” includes “RESTRICTED- CORRECTIVE LENSES,” or not.


Today’s main figure in the story, the man who had been blind from birth, moves from a world of despair to a world of hope, a world of restricted vision in seeing nothing,  to a world being able to see for the first time, and seeing in a new way through the eyes of faith.


Just prior to today’s passage, we learn that Jesus, after confronting some scribes and Pharisees in the temple, has just left under threat of being stoned to death. As he walks outside, he sees a man outside the temple gates, born blind from birth.


The disciples, who were with Jesus, also see the man and ask the question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that made him blind?” Many believed that sin caused physical deformity and calamity upon a family, and that one could trace the problem back as far as the fourth generation, according to Exodus 20:5. Yet, while the father's sins extend to "the third and the fourth generations," to those who are opposed to God, God's "steadfast love" is shown to "the thousandth generation" of those who love God.(Exodus 20:6) The second part of this passage was de-emphasized, while the first part was relished as a way to judge and feel superior to others.


So- if your Great Great Grandparents sinned in some way, you would reap the result in your lifetime- a rather bum deal if you ask me... This was a convenient way not to deal with those who suffered, and was an easy way to judge an individual’s family for their lack of faith. “They caused their own problems by sinning in some way, so they aren’t my problem.”



So, who sinned, that this man was born with blindness? Jesus takes this question head on in Luke 13:2-3- Pilate had apparently massacred many Galileans. The crowds around Jesus want to know, was this because of the sin that they did, or the sins of former generations? “I tell you No”, says Jesus. Another group of people had a tower collapse upon them- same question. Jesus answers. “I tell you No.”  There are no glib answers as to the cause of our suffering.

Jesus’ answer to suffering this time- “It is not this man who sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be made known in him.” What does this mean? We can see in the progression of this story that as he is healed, God’s works are indeed made known in his life-  We first encounter him as a beggar, who had likely sat in front of the temple gates for many years, begging for his existence.


When Jesus encounters this man, he calls himself the light of the world. 19th century English writer Augustus Hare said, “In darkness there is no choice. It is light that enables us to see the differences between things; and it is Christ who gives us light.” Jesus sees this man who was in both physical and spiritual darkness, and helps him see in new ways with the light of heaven. He places mud with spittle on his eyes, and then he tells him to be taken to the pool of Siloam to wash them. Because of his encounter with Jesus, his vision is no longer restricted-he begins to see the world in a new ways, not just physically, but spiritually- The flame of faith is born in his heart.


Those who had passed by him each day outside the temple gates saw him walking around, being able to see and said, “Isn’t this the same beggar we have seen sitting in front of the temple every day?” Others looked right at him, and saw him wearing the same clothes, having the same face, the same hair, and their faith vision was restricted. “No it isn’t him, but he sure looks like him.”  They were spiritually blind to God being at work in the world.


But the man said to them, “It IS me. Jesus did this for me.” The neighbors wanted to know how such a thing could’ve happened, so they took him to those in charge, the keepers of the law, the Pharisees. 


As he stood there in the temple court, he said he didn't know about Jesus, but what he did know was this: "I was blind, now I see.” The Pharisees checked their rule book under "Sinners" and found the symptom: a man was born blind. Then they looked under the laws of Sabbath and saw that this healing took place on the Sabbath. So Jesus was a sinner too. But some Pharisees were puzzled: "But how can a sinner do what he just did?"


Apparently, they were not impressed by the man’s testimony, and they decided that the whole thing was a lie- the neighbors who brought him in made it all up, perhaps trying to challenge their authority in some fashion. Yet it is interesting to consider that these leaders in the temple had probably passed by this formerly blind beggar every day on their way to work.  They too had restricted vision- They were spiritually blind, unable to see God at work, unable to truly see others in need.


They wanted to get to the bottom of this ruse, so they then called the parents in. They asked them- “Ok mom and dad- was he really blind from birth, and is this even your son? If so, how can he now see?” The parents were afraid- they did not want to cause trouble, and then be kicked out of the temple- which meant their whole world would’ve been turned upside down. “Yes, this is our son, and yes he was born blind, but why he can see now, we do not know, nor do we know who did this.” They distanced themselves from the whole event. At the end of their testimony, I do think there was a bit of a dig here- “He’s old enough to answer for himself- why don’t you go and ask him?”

So the man was brought back to the Pharisees-round two of their investigation- Now there was no more dissension in their wondering about Jesus. “We know this man is a sinner. God must’ve done this without this man Jesus. Give God the praise.” Their vision was restricted-They could not see that God was at work in a new way.


By now it is likely the healed beggar was getting tired of all this- “I don’t know about his personal struggles, or his sins. I just know that once I was blind, and now I can see.” Pretty matter of fact. His encounter with Jesus changed him- healed him of his blindness, and a seed of faith was planted. Here in this second encounter it continued to grow.


They asked the question once again- “How did he do this?” “I already told you, and you didn’t believe me. Why should I go through it all over again? Do you now want to become his disciples too?” This was a rather flippant remark to those in power, which made the Pharisees angry. “You are one of his disciples. We are followers of Moses. We do not know this man, or where he comes from.” This reply angered the man, who in turn said, “You do not know where he comes from? He has the power to heal me. God knows and loves those who are faithful. How could anyone do such a thing if he were a sinner?”  The argument got more heated, and name calling began- “You, a sinner, who were born in sin, would teach us, those who are morally upright?”(If you recall from one of my sermons a couple of weeks ago, Pharisees were known as those “Set apart” from the rest of society. They existed to live lives of holiness by honoring the laws in the Torah.) So, challenging their world view got him into hot water.  He was thrown out of the temple- which meant he was in effect excommunicated.


As the man sat outside the temple gates, Jesus showed up. He affirmed the faith of this follower, who now believed him to be the Son of Man, the Messiah. Jesus then pronounced judgment. Who sinned? Jesus said it was the Pharisees, the ones whose vision was restricted, who remained blind to God's light shining in the world's darkened corners. They could not see, and could not believe God was at work in Jesus, or in the man born blind, despite the evidence right in front of them.  The Pharisees sought facts; the blind man knew faith.


In the Ashland Times paper last week, I read three articles that really challenged how I see the world. First, I read an article about Humanist speaker who was coming to the Unitarian Universalist church, who said the Christian church lost all credibility in supporting the president in the last election and has become passé. He went on to suggest that atheists had just as strong a moral center as Christians, that no non theist leader had ever done harm to human beings and basically said it was time to move on from Christianity. Next I read a story about a child whose parents are members of a church that does not believe in modern medicine who died due to not receiving antibiotics. They are being brought up on charges for child neglect. Finally, there was another church in the headlines who has hidden physical abuse on its members for decades, who are finally being brought to trial. The abuse was meant to purge evil and sin from the people who were beaten. These three articles all in one day really made me examine my own faith. I wondered about those outside of the church, and how they viewed Christians- Do they think of us as backward thinking and naïve, not able to truly see this world as it is?


When you leave this sanctuary today, how will you see the world? From your encounter here with the spirit of the Risen Lord, Will you see others in need? Will you see the places that God is bringing light in the darkness, hope in the midst of hopelessness, abundance where there is poverty, justice where there is oppression? Will you hold onto a faithful vision, despite what reports are in the news? I think, the old saying, “Seeing is believing” can be turned around- “Believing is Seeing.” When we believe, when we have faith, we see the world in a new way.  So what is on your CFL? May we leave this place today, having been touched by Jesus, that through faith, through belief, our vision might be unrestricted, and we might truly see. Amen.


Questions for 10:00 A.M. service only

  1. Take note of all the characters in John 9. Who do you think you are most like in this story? The blind man? Disciples? Parents? Neighbors? Pharisees?
  2. Have you ever had an experience where someone went through a radical change? Have you ever experienced a major transformation? How did others respond?
  3. Where do you see spiritual blindness in the world today?
  4. Is it difficult to have faith in such times as these?

Probably the most famous mention of “blindness” in a hymn is from “Amazing Grace.” John Newton, it is reported, loved to talk about his conversion from his  spiritual blindness to sight, from his old reprobate ways to one of righteousness and love. There apparently were two stages to his conversion. The son of a sea captain and a sailor himself, Newton was  aboard a British man-of-war at the age of eighteen in 1743. Hating the life, he deserted, was caught, publicly flogged, and stripped of rank. Leaving the Navy, he next served aboard a slave ship, where he served as a first mate. During his early life, he believed Christians and faith to be inept answers to life.  He came across a copy of the Thomas a Kempis classic The Imitation of Christ, which marked the beginning of the first stage of his conversion. A great storm overtook the ship, during which Newton manned the pumps for over nine hours. All their provisions were either washed overboard or spoiled, so for the next four weeks all they had to eat were the fish they were able to catch. Newton’s great fear was of drowning-he could not swim. Thus out of fear he turned to God. After reaching port, Newton became a sea captain of a slave ship he still had a ways to go in his faith journey, for he saw nothing wrong with his trade. For a long while he was like the blind Pharisees in that he saw no disconnect between belief and practice. He had a series of narrow escapes from death by storms and mutiny during the next few years, and gradually became aware of how morally repugnant his trade was. In time, he gave up his trade. He struggled to educate himself under the instruction of evangelist George Whitefield, and many years later Newton would be ordained. He served but two parishes during the last part of his life  and became a leading light in the Anglican Church.. He helped convert the man who would become the mainstay in the hard-fought campaign to ban slavery, William Wilberforce, whose tireless efforts finally succeeded in the very year of Newton’s death, 1807.  Newton penned the words to one of the most famous hymns ever, in response to God changing his restricted vision and helping him see through the eyes of faith. Please join me in singing, Amazing Grace,  in your pew hymnals.

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