Gospel of John (13) — Open Our Eyes

            This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John.  In just a little bit, we’ll be in chapter 9 where Jesus healed a man who was born blind.

            Before we get to that text, though, I’d like for you to try to imagine what your life would be like if you had been born without the ability to see.  

  • If you had been born blind, you would able to experience the warmth of sunlight on your face, but you would never be able to see the full beauty of a sunrise or a sunset.
  • If you had been born blind, you would able to smell the fragrant aroma of a spring garden, but the words red, yellow, purple and green — words like that would be virtually meaningless to you.
  • If you had been born blind, you would be able to go the beach and listen to the crashing waves and even taste the salty air — but the lapping of ocean waves onto gleaming white sand — that would be a beauty you would never know.
  • If you had been born blind, you would be able to touch your children’s faces but you would never fully comprehend the joy of seeing their unique facial expressions.

            The sad reality is that many of life’s richest experiences would be lost or severely diminished without the ability to see.

            And, while those of us who have been blessed with physical sight can only imagine what it would be like to be blind, there is a form of blindness that we all experience.  You see, one of the side effects of our human nature is that our sin clouds our vision when it comes to the ability to see and fully comprehend spiritual things.  And the result is that we are often blind to what God wants us to see.

            And so, I’d like for us to approach this morning’s text asking God to use his Word to open our eyes to things we need to see in order to grow as followers of Christ.  And I hope that by taking a look at this account of a man who was given physical sight, we can all improve our spiritual eyesight.

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            Our text begins with these simple words: “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” (John 9:1).

            This takes place shortly after the Feast of Tabernacles.  Jesus and his followers were entering the temple area when they saw this man who had been blind since the day he was born.  He was outside the temple entrance doing the only thing that blind people could do for a living back then: he was begging.

            And, it’s ironic that while this blind man was unable to see the people who passed by, I think it’s safe to say that most of the people who passed by this blind man didn’t see him either.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, this man had probably sat in this same spot begging as people passed by — most of whom were too pre-occupied to even turn in his direction.

            There is a sense in which this blind man was “invisible” to everyone.  Much like the panhandlers we encounter every day in Spring Lake and Fayetteville.  People who have been out there for so long that we no longer pay any attention to them.  And I think that’s what this guy was used to.  I think he came to expect people to overlook him because he had spent his entire life being ignored.

            For starters, he was blind — and people found that depressing.  He was a beggar — and people would find that irritatingHe was in their minds, a product of sin—which meant they would also find him disgustingI can just imagine mothers walking by with their children and saying something like, “Don’t look at him; don’t listen to him; don’t pay any attention to him.  He’s sinful.  He wants something, he doesn’t deserve it.” 

            So, it really was unexpected when Jesus stopped and looked at this poor man whom everyone else ignored.  And when he looked at this man who had been blind since birth, Jesus saw more than just a blind beggar.

  • He saw the hurt and the disappointment of a lonely man who lived his whole life dependent on other people.
  • He saw the hopelessness of a life lived in eternal darkness that would never know the light of day.
  • Most importantly, Jesus saw the value of a life that so many people had written off as worthless.

            “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” (John 9:1).

            But then, the story takes a strange turn.  His disciples asked him a question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).

            Now,I want you to think about that for a moment.  These disciples came upon this man who had been blind since birth, and that’s their first response. Which seems a little strange.  What kind of a question is that?  

            I don’t think any of us today would meet a person who was born blind or deaf or missing a limb or with Down’s Syndrome, and our first thought is:  “Wow, I wonder what their parents did to deserve that?”

            Now, there may be times when we see babies that are born with disabilities because the mother chose to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or use drugs while she was pregnant.  There are other babies who suffer brain damage because of the violent way they are treated by their parents.

            But most of the time, when someone is born with some sort of physical handicap, we don’t just assume that they’re being punished for somebody’s sins.  I’ve never introduced Sueanne to someone only to have them ask me, “By the way, Alan, why is she in this wheelchair?  Is it because shesinned, or is it because of the sins of her parents?” 

            And it’s a good thing nobody has ever asked me that, because then I’d have to list all the ways Sueanne has mistreated me over the years to deserve this.  No!  We don’t do that.  We don’t think like that.  We don’t ask questions like: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

            And one of the reasons we don’t ask questions like that is because now we understand a lot of what causes a child to come into this world with birth defects.  But in the ancient world, they didn’t know all that.  They didn’t know that a child could be born blind because they developed cataracts or glaucoma.  Or because their mother was exposed to the rubella virus while she was pregnant.  Or because their optic nerve didn’t develop properly in the womb. Or that a genetic fluke can cause certain kinds of blindness to run in families.

            But, today in the 21st century, even with all we do know, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about why certain children are sometimes born with certain handicaps. But people in the ancient world — like Jesus’ disciples — knew even less than we do about these things.  And so, they tried to make some kind of sense out of it.  They wanted an answer.  They wanted to know why.  Why do these things happen?

            And, when you think about it, we still do that sort of thing today.  Any time we encounter a problem, a mystery, something we don’t understand, something that doesn’t make sense to us — we want to try to figure out a reason. We want to know why. 

            And so, we analyze the problem using the best tools we have.  Experts weigh in on it, each one giving their opinion.  And sometimes people who are obviously notexperts express their opinions.  And I think that’s what’s happening in our story this morning.

            Someone being born blind was a mystery.  It made people want to know why.  And people in the ancient world — like Jesus’ disciples — were using the very best tools they had to analyze the problem.  And, of course, the best tool they had was the scriptures.  

            And I strongly suspect there was an argument that went on among them that was behind the question they asked Jesus.  There were two different opinions.  Some of the disciples thought this man was born blind because his parents were sinners.  But some of them believed the man was born blind because he was a sinner.

            So, I think when they asked Jesus this question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” they wanted Jesus to tell them which side was correct:  Is it the ones who said this man’s sin caused his blindness?  Or is it the ones who said his parents’ sin was to blame?

            Now, let me briefly try to reconstruct both sides of this argument.  But before I do that, you need to understand that most people in the ancient world — including Jesus’ disciples — more or less believed in the principle of karma.  In other words, people get what they deserve. 

            I found this interesting quote – “Karma has no menu. You get served what you deserved.”  And Jesus’ disciples, along with most of the rest of the Jews, would have agreed with that.  If you do good things, then good things will happen to you.   But if you do bad things, then bad things will happen to you. 

            It’s a very simple explanation for how life works, and people tend to like easy answers.  So, the disciples began with this assumption that obviously blindness is a bad thing, and therefore, if someone is blind, then someone must have messed up.  Somebody must have sinned.  They got what they deserved.  The only thing they disagreed about was whose sin caused this terrible condition.

            On the one hand, some of the disciples would have said it was this man’s parents who sinned which caused him to be born blind.  And they probably would have even quoted Bible verses to prove their point.

            For example, in Deuteronomy 5:9 (GW), God said, I punish children for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”  And that seems pretty cut and dry.  The Bible says God punishes children for their parents’ sins.

            And then maybe the disciple would turn forward a few chapters to Deuteronomy 28. Pretty much that whole chapter lists all the ways that God might punish sinners. And one of the things it says is, “The Lord will strike you with…blindness.” (Deuteronomy 28:28)

            So that’s the argument for this idea that the blind man’s parents’ sin caused him to be born blind. The Bible teaches that God punishes children for sins their parents commit; and the Bible also specifically names blindness as a way God punishes sin.

            But, on the other hand, there were some of the disciples who would have argued that the man must have been born blind because of some sin hecommitted.  Now, let that one sink in for a moment. Some of them were actually arguing that this man was born blind because of some sin he committed in his mother’s womb.  They agreed that God would punish sinners with blindness. But they disagreed with the idea that God punished people for the sins of their parents.

            And, to make their point, they might have quoted Ezekiel 18:20, which says: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.”  So, if this man wasn’t being punished for his parents’ sins, there’s no other explanation for his blindness than that it must have been caused by his own sin.

            And, to make that point, they may have looked to the story of Jacob and Esau battling in the womb of Rachel.  Or maybe they looked to what David said in Psalm 51 about being “brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5).

            Whatever evidence they would have used, all of these disciples went back and forth arguing about whose sin caused this man’s blindness.  And when neither side could convince the other side, they asked Jesus which side was right.

            Now, today, we hear this question:  “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” and it just sounds ridiculous.  Not to mention that it was an extremely cruel thing to say.

            So, that’s what’s going on here in the text.  We’ve talked about these disciples and we’ve seen how the question they asked revealed their assumptions about why people suffer and how this world works.  And I think we can all agree that their assumptions were wrong.

            But what about us?   Do we ever do the same thing?  Do we ever say anything like they said?  Is that ever our attitude when we meet someone in a tragic situation?

            Think about it.  A young woman is raped at a college party. And people immediately begin asking questions like: “What was she wearing?  How much did she have to drink?”  In other words, she must have done something to deserve what happened to her, so what was it?  Which is basically just another version of the disciples’ question.

            Or maybe we see a person who is homeless.  And we immediately think, “They’ve obviously done something wrong.  Because if they did what was right and they got a job, they wouldn’t be here.  So obviously, they’ve messed up somewhere along the way.”  Or maybe our first thought is to blame our social services system for not providing enough resources for people in this situation.  Which, when you get right down to it, is really just another version of the disciples’ question about the blind man – “Who sinned – this man or society?”

            Or maybe we see families that stuck in generational cycles of poverty. And we don’t understand.  “Why do they keep having babies?  Why don’t they learn to manage their finances better? Don’t they know anything about personal responsibility?”  Or, then again, maybe we question all the ways that their family or society or schools have let them down and caused them to be in this situation.  And again, all we’re really doing, basically, is asking the same kinds of questions the disciples did. “Who sinned?  Who messed up?  Whose fault is it?”

            And maybe we even have Bible verses to back up our answers to those questions. Just like those disciples had Bible verses.  And they all had their assumptions and their opinions about why this man was born blind.

            And there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion or a perspective.  But there’s everything wrong with trying to impose your perspective or opinion on somebody else based only on your assumptions.  Without knowing all the facts.  For example, if your assumption is that all homeless people are homeless because they’re lazy and refuse to get a job, I would imagine that Terri Kane could give you a long list of homeless people who don’t fit your assumption.

            The truth is, very often, our opinions and perspectives make us blind to the needs that other people have.  Because our assumptions can get in the way of us really seeing that other person.  But listen again to the very first words of our text, “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” (John 9.1)

            And that’s important.  Jesus saw this man, and he saw his need.  Maybe that day, the sun was shining and it was the most beautiful day there had been in months.  But all Jesus could think about was, “What a glorious day my Father has made; and this poor man can’t see it!” 

            His disciples, on the other hand, didn’t really see this blind man. When they looked at this man who had been born blind, all they saw was a problem to be analyzed and argued about.

            So, listen to what Jesus told them because he’s talking to us, too.  In our culture today, we can be so quick to want to play the blame game.  And we will argue back and forth about whose fault it is that someone is in the situation they’re in.  And sometimes we place more value on being right than being kind.  And so often, like the disciples in our story today, we’re asking the wrong questions.  So, we need Jesus to show us a better way.

            Jesus said in verse 3, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3).  Jesus said, in essence, “You’re asking the wrong question. You want to know why this happened, and you’re looking for someone to blame.  But, in this situation, there is no one to blame.” 

            Jesus told them they were all wrong.  This man wasn’t born blind because his parents had sinned.  And he wasn’t born blind because he had sinned.  And, by the way, Jesus had some scriptures on his side, too.  In fact, there are two entire books in the Old Testament — Job and Ecclesiastes — that both teach us what Jesus is saying here.  

            Very often, you can’t draw a straight line between suffering and personal sin.  The truth is, every day perfectly healthy babies are born to rotten parents. And every day, children are born with profound challenges to wonderful parents.  Sometimes stuff just happens.  So, knowing that, our first impulse when we see someone who is hurting or someone who is in need shouldn’t be to try to assign blame.

            Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t some situations where sin causes suffering.  And I think we need to talk with people about the importance of doing what is right so that their lives in the future will be better.  But Jesus shows us our first response to people who are hurting shouldn’t involve finger-pointing.

            Instead of looking for someone to blame, Jesus said this man is blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.”  Instead of looking for someone to blame, Jesus says we need to look first for how God wants to bring a blessing to this hurting person or troubled situation.  Pray about it.  Pray that God will help you to see this person or this situation the way that God sees them.  Be open to what God is putting on your heart.  Be willing for God to use you as a vessel for his love and healing and grace.

            And then Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” (John 9:4).  Or as the New Living Translation translates it, “We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us.”

            What’s interesting to me is that Jesus says first, we need to look for what God can do, and then immediately he tells us to get to work.  Because the idea is that God is going to work through us to heal hurting people and make bad situations better.

            You know, we have a lot of helpers and healers in this church family.  Nurses and teachers and caregivers and human services professionals.  And I hope that God would give each one of you a sense of just how important and holy your work is.  I understand how easy it can be to become a bit cynical when you’re always surrounded by need and hurt and broken people.  And when you find that happening to you, I pray that you’ll feel God’s presence with you, and know that God is working through you. You are the answer to somebody’s prayers.

            But I also hope and pray that the rest of us will feel that same sense of responsibility as well. Because these verses are inviting all of us to work, not just forGod, but withGod.  Alongside God.  To bring hope and healing and mercy into other people’s lives.  And to impart grace and peace to troubled situations.

            In our Wednesday night class this past week, Joey led us in a great discussion of how we need to deal with people when we get into our new church building which is going to be in midst of a community that has so many needs.  But I think it begins with what we see in our text this morning.  We need to see them as people that God loves, people that he wants us to help so that God may be glorified.

            Now, there is one more big part to this story.  It’s what Jesus did for this blind man.  And, of course Jesus healed his eyes so that he could see.  It’s not surprising because Isaiah said back in Isaiah 42 when the Messiah came, he would “open the eyes that are blind,.” (Isaiah 42:7).

            And I’m sure it had to be an overwhelming experience for this man, who had never seen before.  And, all of a sudden, he is surrounded by this big, bold, beautiful, colorful world.  To see it for the first time had to be overwhelming.

            And maybe that’s where the story gets a bit overwhelming for us, too.  Because we know we don’t have the power to do miracles like helping blind people to see.  But I don’t think that’s what this story is asking us to do.

            Remember that John’s gospel calls Jesus’ miracles, signs.  And the miracles that Jesus did weren’t only for the person who was healed, or who found their water jars full of wine, or who was raised from the dead.  All of these miracles were signs that pointed to who Jesus was, and to what God is doing in this world through Jesus.  And that includes you and me.

            Because we all suffer from blindness.  We all struggle to see other people and this world around us the way that God sees them.  We are blinded by our own nearsighted perspectives and assumptions.

            Jesus healed that man and gave him new eyes to see.  And Jesus can give us new eyes as well.  Eyes that see beyond our own little viewpoints.  Eyes that can see solutions, not just problems.  Eyes that seek to bless instead of blame.  Eyes that see our world and the people we meet in it more like Jesus sees them.

            Would you bow and pray with me?

            Father, we live in a world where suffering is too common, and there’s so much around us we don’t understand.  Even as we strive to follow you, we sometimes find ourselves blinded by the ways of the devil — who clouds our vision with blame and shame.  And so, we ask you to heal us, and give us new eyes, just like you did for that man who was born blind.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

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