I See That I Am Blind: A Lenten Sermon
I See That I Am Blind
Sermon preached at Church of the Holy Nativity, Clarendon Hills, IL
March 26, 2017
Here’s a fun fact: technically speaking, the Gospel of John contains no parables. Those famous stories of Jesus are all found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But John does something even more remarkable: he makes the entirety of Jesus’ life into a kind of parable. And the story of the healing of the blind man in John 9 is a great example of this. Like any good parable, there is the initial, surface-level story. But there is also something much deeper going on, and even a surprise twist at the end.
Think about some of the famous parables of Jesus. Take the prodigal son, for instance. This story initially appears to be about a selfish son who squanders his inheritance and who is welcomed back due to the boundless love of his father who lavishes gifts upon him regardless of what he has done in the past. All of that is true—and yet at the very end we discover the story is also about the older son who harbors resentment in his heart and refuses to rejoice with his father. Jesus leads us initially to focus on the graciousness of God, until suddenly at the end he turns the focus back on ourselves, exposing the hardness of our own hearts towards others.
This happens again and again in the Gospels, and it happens again here. For it seems initially like this is yet another miracle story meant to reinforce the claim that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. These stories start to blend together after awhile: someone is in need (often on the Sabbath), Jesus heals the person, the Pharisees get upset, and Jesus continues his ministry in defiance of their laws. There is plenty to unpack even with this much. We could talk about how the Pharisees can’t make sense of this event, so bound are they to their way of seeing the world. We could talk about how the man born blind attempts to be completely honest to the end, even in the face of repeated interrogations. He answers with the facts as he knows them: “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” We often lift him up as the model evangelist: the man simply tells others what he has experienced. He doesn’t bludgeon people with arguments for the existence of God or explanations for why we need God. He merely witnesses to what he has seen and encountered. We celebrate this every time we sing “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
This might be the moral of the story if John stopped writing at verse 34, but the story goes on. And what comes next throws everything we just heard into doubt. After being questioned relentlessly by the Pharisees, suddenly Jesus himself questions the man, after which Jesus declares: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Obviously Jesus is no longer speaking about literal blindness, but what exactly is he trying to say?
We probably wouldn’t be nearly as excited about singing: “I once was found but now am lost, could see but now am blind.” Our instinctive reaction is to protect ourselves from what seems like bad news, so we try to ascribe one story to ourselves and the other story to those terrible Pharisees over there: we are the ones who were blind but now see, but they are the ones who could see but now have become blind. We try to isolate ourselves from the judgment for which Jesus came into this world. Surely that judgment belongs to someone else!
The story seems to confirm our instincts when the Pharisees enter the picture again. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” they say. But Jesus’ response is no less perplexing: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Jesus turns everything on its head. Earlier the Pharisees were using the blindness of the man as evidence that someone had sinned, but now Jesus uses blindness as an indication of sinlessness. But that’s not all. Jesus’ words contain something far more scandalous. For who has been the one saying “I see” this whole time? In verse 11 the man says: “I went and washed and received my sight.” In verse 15 he says: “Then I washed, and now I see.” And in verse 25 he says: “Though I was blind, now I see.”
Surely, we think to ourselves, Jesus couldn’t be talking about the blind man. And yes, it’s true that he is speaking to the Pharisees. But look at the story again. After the man declares three times that he sees—and, by the way, where before have we heard about someone insisting on something three times?—Jesus himself finally confronts him. The man’s faithful and honest testimony to the Pharisees did not let him escape judgment; in fact, it actually brought judgment upon himself. He must now answer the all-important question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Why does Jesus ask this? Hasn’t this man been interrogated enough already? Hasn’t he proven himself the perfect evangelist? Wasn’t he simply telling the truth?
Here’s a somewhat less fun fact about Jesus: his message, while good news, is always challenging news; it is news that unsettles us, maybe even disturbs us, scandalizes us. The apostle Paul insists that the gospel is a stumbling block, a scandal, foolishness. And it never ceases to challenge and unsettle us. Faith does not suddenly make the message of Jesus something comfortable. Like Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jesus is not safe.
When Jesus says the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, do we think this is a single movement: the two groups simply switch places? This statement by Jesus always troubled me. If the last become the first, then are they the ones who must then become the last again? And, conversely, if the first become last, will they become the first again? Or to use the language of John 9: If the blind gain their sight, will they become blind again? And if those with sight become blind, will they regain their sight? We could extend this indefinitely.
This is the great paradox of the gospel: faith is not a once-for-all moment, a single act that, once completed, is permanently finished. The first constantly become the last, and the last constantly become the first. Or rather, perhaps Jesus is saying that the entire way of ordering people in terms of first and last belongs to the old way of things, the passing age. His coming inaugurates something new and unprecedented. No longer can we rest content in the knowledge that we possess the truth and gifts of God. This, if anything, was the true error of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law: they were still trapped in the old way of thinking that understood God’s grace to be something stable, fixed, and definable. The Law was indeed good, but it was not flexible. It lacked the Spirit of God, the Spirit that blows in new directions and breathes in fresh, surprising ways.
The man born blind was faithful to this old order of the Law. He answered the Pharisees in the only way he knew how. Everything he said conformed to what was obvious, explicable, rational, sensible, and evident. But he was still seeing with old eyes, and ultimately Jesus had to step into the picture. The man learns that he must leave behind his entire existence, his whole way of understanding himself.
The new vision that Jesus brings doesn’t abide by the old rules. Our eyes have to be retrained—our vision has to be crucified and resurrected, not once but every day. And when that happens, we can no longer say, “We see! We see!” As if this vision were something we possessed as our own, something we could put in our back pocket. No—we must learn to see anew in every moment. That is to say, we must learn to recognize our blindness anew in every moment. For if we are blind, then we see; and if we see, then we are blind. If we are last, then we are first; and if we are first, then we are last.
Like Socrates, the Christian learns to say: “I know that I do not know.” Or to put it in the terms of John’s Gospel: I see that I am blind. I hear that I am deaf. I possess what I do not possess.
Like his parables, Jesus’ message to the Pharisees places us, as the hearers of this story, in an endless loop of constant examination. As we recognize our blindness, we receive new sight; but in our tendency to rest content with our sight, Jesus confronts with our blindness again. We never arrive at our final destination. When Jesus calls us to faith, he calls us into an ongoing journey, a process that never stops. Early Christian theologians like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed this process even continues beyond death as we journey towards God for all eternity.
If this strikes us as impossibly daunting and overwhelming, then perhaps we have grasped the truth! The great paradox of Christian faith is not one that simply lets us remain where we are; it doesn’t fit itself comfortably in our lives like a fine new piece of mental or spiritual furniture. Like the temple, Jesus tears down our inner dwelling places and rebuilds them again. And again. And again. But as we go on this journey we know that we are not alone, that we journey with one who has gone before us, who intercedes on our behalf, who stood in our place and stands with us now.
This is why we confess our sins each day and hear Christ’s absolution. This is why we come to the table each week to partake of Christ’s body and blood. This is why we journey through the wilderness of Lent each year.
Every year we discover that the darkness of Lent is in fact the unsettling, uncomfortable light of the cross. John tells us earlier in the Gospel that the light came into the darkness, but “people loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). How could this be, we might wonder? Who would prefer to be in the dark—unless the light were something so bright that it hurts our eyes, so piercing that it blinds us, and only in blinding us, allows us to see, truly, once more, who we really are?
In this season of Lent, I challenge us not to turn away from this light. Allow this light to blind us with its glory, and in recognizing our blindness, may we see ourselves anew.