Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2017 Lectionary
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: John 9:1-41
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Blind from birth
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to see and know Jesus who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
My daughter Eleanor looked normal enough when she was born; weighing 6 lbs. 12 oz.; she had 10 fingers and 10 toes. She was a little cutie-pie. About a week or so after being discharged from the hospital, she had the usual check-up with the pediatrician. Everything looked normal. The next check-up likewise looked normal. She was gaining weight, as she should.
After a couple of months, however, it was observed that her eyes seemed to be doing “funny”—not tracking together. It was difficult to determine whether she was responding to visual stimuli or not. At her next check-up this concern was brought to the attention of the pediatrician. She examined Eleanor’s eyes, intimating that she might be blind. An ophthalmologist was recommended and an appointment made. You can imagine the anxiety this prospect caused.
The ophthalmologist performed various visual tests and declared that Eleanor was blind. We were shocked and stunned. In the State of Alabama if you want the best of medical care, you go to the University of Alabama Medical School in Birmingham. An appointment was made. Eleanor was not much more than 6 months old at the time. We were scared.
The doctor was an eye doctor of a rather different sort. He attached electrodes to various places on her head, especially over the occipital lobe, the brain center for sight. Eleanor was placed in a chair with a strobe light flashing before her. The objective was to see whether the electrodes would register any heightened activity in response to the flashing light. If they did, then nothing anatomically was wrong with Eleanor’s eyes. Thankfully, there was activity. Eleanor was not blind. She could see. Yes, she had lazy eye, had to wear eye patches, and she had three surgeries to make it possible for her eyes to work together. Eleanor had not been born blind from birth.
In today’s gospel from St. John, we heard, “As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” The past two Sunday’s we have been alerted to the fact that when it appears that John is saying one thing on a spiritual level he just might be saying something else altogether. So, when, we hear that there was a man blind from birth, we need to ask ourselves what exactly that might mean. Our first inclination in hearing that a man was blind from birth is to think that the man had been blind ever since he was born. It is a reasonable assumption. That is what it sounds as if John is saying, but could it be understood from a different perspective, a spiritual perspective?
Have you ever heard of silver nitrate? It is a soluble compound used as a reagent in scientific experiments, a topical treatment for things like warts and bacterial infections, and a general antibacterial for use in medicine and industry. It is popular in pharmaceuticals, but is generally only approved for external use. For example, a 1% solution was traditionally prescribed for the prevention of gonococcal ophthalmia in newborns. In other words, in cases where the mother might have a certain venereal disease, a very mild solution of silver nitrate was applied to the newborn’s eyes to prevent it from being born blind from birth. To further elaborate, in order to prevent the child from being born blind as a result of birth a mild solution of silver nitrate was applied to the eyes of that child.
As to the man, whom Jesus healed of blindness, it is unlikely that the cause of his blindness was from his mother having had a venereal disease. He was probably blind before he was born and not as a result of birth. As to the cause, we do not know, perhaps there was a DNA mutation or injury to him while in the womb. Why Jesus used mud made from His saliva and dirt from the ground in this particular case, we do not know. We can read elsewhere in the gospels where Jesus healed the blind merely by touching them.
As I have mentioned before, the televangelist and healer Benny Hinn, in contemplating why Jesus used mud, wondered whether the reason was because the man had no eyeballs. In other words, Jesus formed eyeballs from mud to be inserted into what had once been vacant eye sockets. Now, that may be off base, but it does remind us of something John told us about in the very beginning of his gospel. Remember?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Jesus was and is the Word and through Him all things were created. To get specific about one of these “all things”, we need to return to Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” In other words, Jesus, in healing the man of blindness with mud, was re-enacting what He had done when man was first created. Indeed, He was making a statement about who He is. We see this, but do those around Him?
Obviously, it was a big deal that the man had been healed of blindness. In fact, as we heard, there were those who had a hard time believing it. “The neighbors and those who had seen [the blind man] 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.’” So, this extraordinary event was brought to the attention of the authorities, the Pharisees.
Rather than be glad for the formerly blind man, some of the Pharisees questioned the character of the healer. They discounted the former blind man’s healing as being other than from God saying, “[F]or he does not observe the Sabbath.” They even go so far as to suggest that Jesus had performed a slight of hand. Verse 18 says, “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 sight.” Later, they questioned Jesus’ methods; “How did he open your eyes,” they asked.
Let’s be honest. We see in the Pharisees a line of reason, of rationale, that we ourselves have perhaps have used and use. Indeed, ours is a culture of cynicism and disbelief. Ours is a culture of reduction, looking for the worst in things. We wear the lenses of negativity and limitation. Our trust and faith in our fellow humans has been broken, and with reason –too many times betrayed, too many times let down. Never mind that the idea of God is laughable to the secular eye. We humans, also, have a tendency to make pre-judgments about people who are sick, physically challenged, or abnormal. Was it not Jesus’ disciples who asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We wonder what they did that has resulted in some imperfection. We say their problems are the result of coming from a dysfunctional family. “No wonder the guy has a drinking problem, his father was an alcoholic.” “You’d have a temper too if your family were Irish.” “What do you expect from a person who lives on the other side of the tracks?” Prejudice is a form of blindness.
In the gospel the blind man’s neighbors were blinded by denial. “Wasn’t this guy the beggar?” “No, can’t be him, he was a blind man.” He told his neighbors that hewas indeed the beggar, but they did not believe him. Denial is a form of blindness which we use in order not to see what is real. Denial is essentially disbelief. Psychologically speaking, it is a defense mechanism. It enables folk to resist change. It is a coping tool that people use to reject the truth, either about themselves or someone else.
In other words, the blind man was surrounded by a community who suffered from some form of spiritual blindness. Sadly, no one acknowledged that a miracle had taken place. No one rejoiced or praised God for the man’s ability to see. No one asked him what it felt like to be able to see his family for the first time. Instead of being excited that God had intervened and helped a man to see, they all rejected him.
These lenses of negativity and limitation which we wear (our blindness) work both ways. They not only limit what we believe others might be capable of in the best of senses. They limit what we can expect from our circumstances as well as what we can expect of ourselves. There is, however, the other side of the coin; where there is expectation and hope, limitations melt away.
This is evidenced in researched done on the placebo effect. In the late 1950s, a group of surgeons led by Edmunds G. Dimond of the University of Kansas Medical Center performed a then-common surgical procedure on 13 patients to treat angina pectoris, chest pain caused by insufficient blood supply to the heart. On five other patients with the disease, the doctors made only a superficial chest incision but performed no surgery on them. Ten of the 13 patients who underwent actual surgery got better – but so did all five of those who were not operated on.
A recent British study revealed that even words can be effective placebos. Half of a test group of 200 patients who had no identifiable disease but complained of pain were told by doctors that they would probably get better in two weeks. Two weeks later, 64 percent of them had. Doctors told patients in the control group that they did not know what was wrong with them, and only 39 percent of these patients recovered, Brown reported last month in the journal Hospital Practice. (Richard Morin, “The Healing Power of Sugar Pills,” The Washington Post, August 23, 1998, C5.)
Test subjects in another study were led to believe that they were consuming an alcoholic beverage when the drink actually was booze-free, and guess what. Depending on how much they drank, their speech became slurred, and they showed other telltale signs of tipsiness, Brown said. Others were told their placebo drink contained caffeine. These people showed ‘improved reaction time’ in lab tests similar to the physiological effects of real caffeine. (Richard Morin, “The Healing Power of Sugar Pills,” The Washington Post, August 23, 1998, C5.)
So, then the Pharisees were blind, not anatomically, but none the less blind. They could not see what was right in front of them. It is easy enough to blame them, but consider this. They were the most religiously educated of all. They knew their Bible, the Old Testament or Torah. They knew it by heart. They knew how God had operated in the past and how He had saved them, the Jewish people of Israel. “We are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses,” we heard them say. Despite that, they were unable to see Jesus for who He was and is. Curiously, it would appear that their religious education was blinding them. They could not see the whole for the part. Their fixation on the Sabbath was preventing them from seeing the whole and what God was doing through Jesus before their very eyes.
It is scary to think about. Might we be doing the same? Indeed, if we want to come up with a quick explanation for why there are so many Christian denominations in the world (it has been suggested that there are 33,000), then emphasizing a part over the whole is a pretty good explanation.
The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind: “be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving” (6:9). It is a malady common to us all. We all are blind from birth. Though we may not give it much thought, a child must be taught to see. Depending on the age of the child, if a ball rolls behind some object, that child believes the ball is gone. That child does not understand that the ball is merely hidden. The child is effectively blind. Education is a matter of teaching children and adults how to see and not be blind. By the same token, education can teach an individual not to see. It can lead to blindness. We can be blind to the needs of others. We can be blind to possibility. We can even be blind to ourselves, what is going on with us. We know all this.
Jesus though came to dispel the darkness. John tells us in chapter1:9 that Jesus is the “true light.” Jesus puts it this way in verse 39 of today’s gospel: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
What does that mean that those who see may become blind? St. Paul, perhaps expresses it best. “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’” (1 Corinthians 3:18, 19).
Light makes it possible for us to see. By it we can judge the form and nature of something. This can be unsettling, especially when that light is turned on us. The light reveals our deepest fears, yet it is only then that we can be liberated from their bondage. A. W. Tozer in his book, The Pursuit of God, made this observation: “Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote: “What we hear reflects the persons we who are listening are, and not simply what it is that we are listening to” (Eschatology, p. 22). The same might be said of seeing. What we see reflects the persons we who are seeing are, and not simply what it is that we are seeing. Now deceased author, Flannery O’Connor, once put it this way: “To know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around.” (The Fiction Writer and His Country). Jesus, of course, is the Truth.
How then are we to lose our blindness and begin to see? A. W. Tozer, offers these words: “For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers (you and I) find God in personal experience, they are not better for having heard the truth.” You see, the reason the Pharisees were blind was because they had not found God in personal experience, meaning through Jesus. Let that sink in. They had not had an encounter with God in Christ. Have we? Have you and I had a personal experience with God in Jesus? Matters of faith will always be a befuddling mystery, the Bible will always seem strange and incomprehensible until we have had that encounter, that all important encounter with God in Jesus.
It goes without saying that it is impossible to have a relationship with someone we have never met. Indeed, it is impossible to say “I love you” to someone we have never met. This holds true in respect to people and certainly holds true in respect to God, to Jesus, and to the Holy Spirit. This means our first and foremost concern should be to have that all important encounter with God, with Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit. We have only to sincerely ask God, ask Jesus, ask the Holy Spirit, in order to have that essential encounter. Without that encounter, we are wandering in the dark.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.