Friday, 20 March 2020

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent (22/03/20): Sign and Judgement

Since we are, for the moment, unable to meet together and listen to a sermon, here is a sermon for you to read. It is for the 4th Sunday in Lent and is based on the set Gospel reading. Please read the gospel passage before reading the sermon and feel free to comment. I hope this will be of some use whilst we aren't worshiping together but are having to find new ways of worshiping and new (old) forms of devotion, like reading sermons. I intend to post a sermon for each Sunday while we are unable to meet.

Sign and Judgement
John 9:1-41

Jesus says:
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world
And then he heals the blind man:
He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”
The man does as he is told and:
He went and washed and came back able to see.

The gift of sight is one of the clearest signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom. It is one of those things which will happen as God’s rule is being established. It goes along with those other clear signs: restoring hearing to the deaf, enabling the lame to walk, releasing the captives, proclaiming good news to the poor,  and raising the dead to life. All signs which Jesus does and which establish that God’s kingdom is being established in and through him. Giving sight to the blind is a particularly telling sign. It is an acted parable of the broader work the kingdom does. Work that enables those who receive it to “see” the world and God’s place in it truthfully. It is a metaphor for the kind of transformation that will take place in all people as God’s kingdom comes. But at this point, as something Jesus does for this man, it is also significant. Restoring sight to the blind is the quintessential “act of God.” It was universally understood that blindness is irreversible. So it is impossible to make the blind see without the direct intervention of God. That Jesus can do this, and does do this, is the strongest evidence to those who witness it, that God is at work in and through Jesus.

But God and the kingdom are never quite that straightforward. We think it would be very comforting, very reassuring, to be given unequivocal and undeniable evidence of the presence and action of God. Of course it never happens that way. Even something as obvious and self-evident as giving a blind man sight merely provokes a discussion. Even the people who knew the blind man best question what has happened: 
The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No but it is someone like him.”
Much as we might like conclusive proof of God’s presence and action. Such proof is not, and indeed cannot be given. Even when God’s saving action is most clearly displayed, there is always room for some other explanation. There is always room for doubt and even outright denial. God at work in Jesus never ends the discussion, but always presents us with a challenge and a choice. And this is where God’s judgement lies.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the gospel is that it is religious people who have the greatest difficulty in accepting it. When that challenge and choice arise, when the moment of judgement comes, those who already think they know most about God find themselves on the wrong side. The neighbours have seen what has happened to the blind man and even they dispute among themselves, but when word reaches the Pharisees. . .
As happens time and again between Jesus and the Pharisees, what Jesus does creates for the Pharisees what might be called “cognitive dissonance.” What the Pharisees are seeing and what they “know” to be true don’t match. Some of the Pharisees said, 
“This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” 
But others said, 
“How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”
They can’t fit what Jesus does into their established understanding of the world and how God works. And this is always the problem for religion. It always ends up narrowing its participants’ understanding of God. The minute any religion attempts to define what God is like, or what God wants, something of the totality of God is lost. God lies beyond religion’s ability to describe or even to recognise the full reality of God. This is not just true of the Pharisees, though their religion does seem to have suffered quite badly from this. The Pharisees had put their God in a box. A box defined by strict observance of the regulations laid down by the law given to Moses. They attempt to do something quite laudable. They try to turn everywhere the followers of God are living into a temple for God, by applying the temple’s regulations everywhere. But rather than expanding knowledge of God and making God more accessible, their religion has the opposite effect. They make God small enough for them to recognise and manage and to some extent to control. Cynically we might suspect it is self-interest that makes them gatekeepers of access to God. Though again the Pharisees are far from the only ones who are vulnerable to that accusation. 
As so often happens the disagreement between the Pharisees and Jesus is identified in his attitude to the Sabbath. The Sabbath is so central to the law and so central to the Pharisees’ definition of what God is like and what God wants and how God acts that, as far as they are concerned, anyone who doesn’t act as they act in relation to the Sabbath cannot possibly have anything to do with God. The paradoxical, contradictory outcome of religion is that it sometimes leads religious people to deny the obvious activity of God! Because Jesus does not fit in with their small definition of what God is like and how God can act, they cannot recognise what God is doing in Jesus, even when it is an absolutely self-evident sign of the Kingdom like giving sight to a blind man!

The Pharisees do their very best to make the facts fit their theory. Their efforts very much line up with the attempts of other religious people before and since who have tried to deny that God is at work in someone other than themselves. Their first strategy is to deny that Jesus was responsible for what has happened to the (formerly) blind man. The man was brought to the Pharisees and they began to ask him:
How he received his sight.
They are sure that since Jesus is a sinner and therefore God cannot act through him there must be another explanation for the blind man receiving his sight. They try to find where it is that God has acted, despite Jesus rather than because and through Jesus. To those who want to find it there is always another plausible explanation to what God does, other than accepting that God is at work in the world. But on this occasion they can’t find such an explanation. The man is stubborn in his insistence on the story he is telling and in giving Jesus the credit. He says, 
“He is a prophet.”

One of those plausible alternative explanations might be that this is simply a case of mistaken identity. No miracle has taken place. It is simply that one man has been mistaken for another. A man who can see has been switched for a different man who was and is blind. So in their search for a different explanation, one that does not involve them acknowledging what Jesus has done, they call in the man’s parents.
“Is this your son, who you say was born blind?”
It does feel rather like the Pharisees are clutching at straws, casting around for any explanation other than the obvious one. The man’s parents though rather sit on the fence. They can’t deny that this is their son, what kind of parents would do that? Or that he was born blind, after all they have lived with his disability all his life. But they are unwilling to step into the argument between the Pharisees and Jesus. Those who claim to know God and choose to act as gatekeepers for access to God can wield a great deal of power. We are tragically aware of just how much power religious leaders can exercise over people’s lives, and how that power has been abused. The man’s parents are afraid of the Pharisees who question them and with good reason. The Pharisees can cut them off from the synagogue. They can damage the man’s parents, socially, economically and spiritually. So the parents dodge:
“We know that this is our son, and we know that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that he now sees”
Another of the curious paradoxes of religion is that it can even make us deny our actual, real lived experience of God, when that experience doesn’t fit what religious authorities are telling us it should be.

Faced with the impossibility of denying that a miracle has occurred the Pharisees demand:
“Give glory to God!”
They are entirely right. It is God and only God who deserves the glory, for this and everything else. They are not wrong in insisting that only God can restore sight to the blind. They know as well as we do that this miracle is as clear a sign as you can get of God’s action and God’s reign. But their religion, their fixed, and their self-interested understanding of how God can act forces them to deny that God can act apart from them. Their religion blinds them as it so often blinds religious people, to God acting in a new and unexpected way. The Pharisees, because of what they think they know about God, cannot accept that God is acting in and through Jesus:
“We know that this man is a sinner”
That is their tragedy, and the tragedy of so much religion.

The magnificent irony of the healing of the blind man is that it reveals who it is who has been blind all along. Jesus says of himself:
“I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Perhaps we are least comfortable with Jesus when he starts talking about judgement. But since we’re religious people, and maybe we claim to be able to “see,” we should be!
Jesus is Good News. Jesus brings salvation, the kingdom of God. He brings it in the form of sight for the blind. He brings it in the form of restoring hearing to the deaf, and enabling the lame to walk, releasing the captives, proclaiming good news to the poor, and raising the dead to life. But in doing those things he always also sets up judgement. Do we recognise and acknowledge the new thing that God is doing, Or deny it? Judgement is always passed on ourselves by our response to what God does. Hearing what Jesus said about himself and how he brings about judgement the Pharisees were compelled to ask:
“Surely we are not blind are we?”
We know the answer to their question.
Dare we ask it of ourselves? 

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