Sermon
March 14, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading - John 9: 1-41

1
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" 9 Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." 10 But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" 11 He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight." 12 They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see."16 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?" And they were divided.17 So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight19 and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?"20 His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself."22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.23 Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner."25 He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."26 They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"27 He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?"28 Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from."30 The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."34 They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"36 He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."37 Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."38 He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.39 Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?"41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

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Sermon - "Slowing coming into focus"

 Many times when we approach the scriptures in worship we read several short passages, and most of the time from different books of the Bible. This morning we read from only one book and covered only one story. As you could tell from listening, it was a long story that moved and developed through several scenes with various twists, turns, and surprises.

It’s important to realize that there are a lot of different kinds of writing in the Bible. There are poems, parables, riddles, passages of law, wisdom, prophecy, satire, and drama. Our passage this morning is a well constructed drama, a drama in which you can almost see the curtain fall between scenes, almost hear the scenery moving between settings, almost picture the various characters waiting in the wings for their cues to enter, almost sense the rising tension in the audience as the play moves to its climatic moment.

What is the point of this drama? What did it mean to the audience that first heard it? What does it mean for us today?

Is it that Jesus had the power to give sight to the blind? Yes, that is true, but there is more.

Is it that those in authority were threatened by a display of power from someone outside their circle? Yes, that is true, but there is more.

Is it that some will avoid making a commitment for or against the claims of Jesus out of fear to offend the status quo. Yes, that is true but there is more.

I think we’ve all heard the expression "blind faith." Some may associate the phrase more with rock than religion, but for others the words go together like bread and butter, salt and pepper, corned beef and cabbage. But this drama breaks the bond between these two words.

In this drama it is not blind faith, but faith that slowly comes into focus, faith that sees, faith that brings one out of darkness into the light.

Let us take a few minutes to work our way through the story and see how the writer creates a rich presentation of who Jesus is, what God is doing in him, and what decisions we are being asked to make in response.

In the opening scene Jesus encounters the man born blind. The disciples are with him and ask him: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answers the disciples, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

Right from the beginning, we know that this encounter is about much more than the physical sight of the blind man. This is about God’s works being revealed. This is about Jesus being the light of the world.

Jesus makes a paste of mud and anoints the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. And the text tells us that Siloam means "Sent"

Now, if you were staging this as a play, at this point you’d have all the characters exit; it would be the end of scene one.

For the early Christians this opening would bring them right into the drama. It would seem to them a retelling of their own beginnings in faith. The anointing of the eyes of the blind man would remind them of their own anointing in baptism. The fact that the blind man was told to wash in the water of Siloam, which means sent, would remind them that they called Jesus "the One sent," and that in their baptism they too had gone to the living water of Jesus Christ to be washed and changed forever.

But now the man born blind comes back on the stage. Jesus and the disciples are gone, but some neighbors and others who had always known him as a beggar enter from the wings. He sees them, they see him, they see that he sees them. How can this be?

"Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" Some think it is, some do not, but the man himself keeps saying "I am the man." So they all ask him "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know." And scene two ends.

This is the first of four times in the course of our drama that the man born blind, the man who now sees, makes a statement about Jesus. This first statement is pretty limited - he is the man called Jesus and I do not know where he is. We will see, over time, how his confession deepens as he slowly brings the full nature of Jesus into focus.

The people of the village don’t know what to do with this man so they bring him to the Pharisees. The Pharisees, however, have one concern which takes priority over all others. It seem that the day on which this healing took place was the sabbath day. Jesus broke the law, and not just any law, the law which separated the Jews from the Gentiles, the law which had become the center of their identity, their symbol, their flag, their national anthem all rolled into one.

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?" And they were divided.

This again, would be immediately familiar to the early Christians who heard the story. They were Jews living in a community that was divided, brought into a crisis by their encounter with Christ. This division had existed for some time, but now it was hardening. The Jewish Christians were being expelled from the synagogue. Once expelled they were no longer protected in their religious practices. Not only were they rejected by their own people, but now they were the targets of Roman persecution as well.

The Romans may have been brutal in many ways, but they had tolerance for the Jews. The Jews were obviously an ancient people, and their scriptures very old. The Romans revered what was ancient and respected the books of antiquity. So the Jews were excused for religious reasons from many Roman practices such as offering sacrifices to the gods of the state.

The Christians, however, were not old. By their own admission they began under the rule of Pontius Pilate, and that was less than 100 years ago. How could they claim to be a religion if they were brand new, for religion, by Roman definition, was rooted in antiquity. So expulsion from the synagogue, for the early Jewish Christians, was a crisis that brought danger from the state and animosity with their former friends and neighbors.

And then there was the inability of the religious authorities to recognize the new work that God was doing with this man born blind. For them, too, religion was a thing of history, of the past. Faithfulness meant looking backwards and staying within the boundaries set down by the previous generations. It meant loyalty to tradition and there was precious little room for new essentials to emerge. There might be new interpretations of old doctrines - in fact this openness to new interpretations was the mark of the Pharisees - but no room for a fundamental shift, a radically new insight, a "new creation" to use the language of the Bible.

This situation seems to be a constant of every time and culture. It is very much with us today. There are those for whom religious answers, by definition, mean looking to the past to solve today’s dilemmas. Issues of family, intimacy, personality, sexuality, medical ethics, economics, race and religion all create fundamental division between those who think a new day requires new answers and those who think that tradition is sufficient.

Such was the division caused by the story of the man born blind and this Jesus who, some say, healed him.

The Pharisees turn to the blind man to tell them about Jesus, "What do you say about him?" they ask, "It was your eyes he opened."

Now for the second time the man born blind has to make a statement about Jesus, and now he goes a little farther in what he is willing to say. He said, "He is a prophet."

No longer is he just the man others call "Jesus," no longer someone whose whereabouts are unknown. The focus is becoming clearer. He is a prophet.

At this point new characters are brought on stage. Some question whether this man really was born blind, so the parents are introduced and questioned: "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?"

His parents sound like they have been prepared for this deposition and give a carefully limited answer: "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself."

The text goes on to say: His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.

This, we should recognize, is an anachronism - an issue that doesn’t fit the time frame of the story. At the time of Jesus, no one was being put out of the synagogue for calling him the Messiah, and the synagogue itself was of little importance. The synagogue only became the center of Jewish life after the temple was destroyed, and that took place 40 years after Jesus was crucified.

I say this because it’s important to read the Bible with understanding. And that understanding can only be gained when you see it in its context. Here the context is not the time of Jesus, but the later time of the early church when the Jesus movement is splitting from its Jewish roots and there is much bitterness and animosity being generated.

The parents, in this context, are people who see the good work that Jesus has done, but refuse to "see" who he is out of fear. They will not take the risk. They will not confess his name. They want to dodge the issue and will not take sides.

People like this must have infuriated the early church. They were no doubt of the mind set, "If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem." Those who would nominally accept Jesus but draw away the minute it might cost them anything were not to be trusted. This tepid, half hearted attitude drew the scorn and contempt of the early church, and in the drama we see how the man born blind changes gears in response to his parents’ answer. Now he is sarcastic and belligerent.

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.

Now the confession becomes clearer. Not only does the man born blind see Jesus as a prophet, but as one who comes from God: One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

The scene clears as people scatter. Some Pharisees move to the back of the stage as Jesus and the man born blind meet in the front and have one final conversation.

Jesus asks him: "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"

"And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."

Jesus says, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."

And the man born blind says, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.

Here is the final confession of faith: Not only is Jesus a prophet, a man from God, but Lord, the name above every name, the name before which every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Although there is a one last dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, I think this final confession of the man born blind is really the climax of the drama. In his transformation from a beggar to one who courageously stands up to the authorities and confesses that Jesus is Lord, he has embodied the life of the early church. And this gaining of courage and this willingness to confess has not come without a price. This vision which has slowly come into focus was purchased with hardship, distress, and danger. And it conveys to the early church a truth which stands today: Sometimes faith comes only through difficult testing and even suffering.

We may confess Jesus Christ as Son of God, Lord and Savior of the world, but this may be a very unfocused image in our hearts and minds. Our vision of who God truly is and what God has truly done for us may only clear up as we need to turn to it in times of confusion, loss, pain, grief, disenchantment and difficulty. This is the story of the man born blind, this is the story of the early church, and this may be our story as well.

So though we may not have blind faith, though we may not achieve sudden enlightenment, let us find courage and strength in remembering that if we turn to God with trust, if we keep our gaze on him in times of trial and suffering, we will find a faith that is sufficient to sustain us, our vision will come into focus, and we might even hear ourselves say: One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

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Let us pray:

O God who gives sight to the blind, hope to the poor, and comfort to those in pain, we offer you our worship, our praise, our confession of faith. We thank you for the words and stories of scripture which give us a vision of your greatness and the trials, struggles, and questions of our ancestors in faith. We pray for an openness to new insights, new possibilities, new solutions to the age old problems of humanity.

Especially today we seek solutions to the problem of religious and racial hatred and war. Even as we sit and worship in freedom and security, others face and danger and death because of their faith or ethnic heritage.

We pray for solutions to the lack of food and shelter which oppress many lives, to the indifference of those who could make a difference, to the weariness of those who serve among the poor and needy.

It is by amazing grace that you have offered us a vision that is bigger than ourselves, a vision of our place in the wonderful work of Jesus Christ to redeem and shape the world for your glory. Help us to keep that vision in focus, and never, now that you have offered us sight, be content with blindness again.

May our lives be shaped by our prayers, and may our prayers rise up to you each day with praise and with love for those we know who are in need of your comfort and grace.

Today we especially pray for Gladys Cummings, Sue Temple, Mary Ellen Lanigan, for Jean Barlow….

We ask your blessing to be with families of those who mourn the loss of a loved one, especially the family and friends of Stuart Daniels, Carol Caldwell, Kevin Osborne, and Ray Detwiler, who died this past week.

We also thank you for the joy that was given to the Detwiler family at the birth of Brandon Ross Lefevre on March 2nd.

Though sadness and joy, through sickness and strength, may we always sense your closeness and be open to your Spirit, for you are our God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.


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