Heading into Lent, I had every intention of preaching on Psalm 23 on Lent 4. My desire was two-fold. On the one hand, it seems the only time I get to preach on Psalm 23 is at funerals. It is, as you all know, a popular psalm for those in mourning, because of the comfort of which it reminds us. I wanted to preach on it, though, as the target of all those spiritual disciplines we have been discussing this season. As some have noticed, the disciplines are all about forging a closer relationship with God. We meditate to hear better His voice. We fast to subdue better the flesh. We practice solitude to feel His presence. In short, we practice all those disciplines so that we will come to understand the truth of Psalm 23, that the Lord only wants good things for us and for us to dwell in His House forever. Psalm 23, in many ways, expresses the ideal understanding of our relationship to God.
Unfortunately for me, I was drawn elsewhere this week. In particular, as we have been considering the stories of Nicodemus, of the Samaritan woman at the well, and now of the man born blind, I have been in mind of boldness. Over the past year or so, we have been looking a bit more specifically at the qualities and process of discipleship. Part of our focus on disciplines has been to teach us how to be better disciples. Sometimes, though, we have had to look at our lives--our behaviors, our assumptions, and our actions--to help us discern whether we are maturing as disciples. In our spiritual discernment, some have noticed that they “really aren’t cut out for” this ministry or that ministry. One of the peculiar ideas of the Holy Spirit is that no one has to be cut out for a particular ministry to do it well. All God asks of us is that we be willing to step out in faith. He puts the words in our mouths; He causes the seeds around us to germinate. What do I mean?
Our story today begins with the disciples observing a man born blind. As with us, the Jews were very familiar with the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:5 had reminded people for generations that God cursed those who worship idols to the third and fourth generation. It was a terrible thing to be born with a birth defect in the ANE. But to have your birth defect attributed to the sins of a parent or grandparent, can you imagine? Like many in the Church today when discussing Ephesians 5:22-23 and women obeying their husbands--reminding husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church--, the Pharisees and Sadducees had a hard times getting to Exodus 20:6--where God promises to bless the faithful to a thousand generations--, to say nothing of the book of Job. The disciples have been taught all their lives that deformities reflect the sins either of the one deformed, or in the case of infants, sins of the parents or grandparents. So they ask the Lord, was it the man’s sins or his parents’ which caused him to be born blind.
Jesus tells them that the man was born blind so that the glory of God might be revealed in him. Then Jesus makes the mud with His spit, coats the man’s eyes, and tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. The blind man is healed!
Notice the blindness that exists in the rest of the pericope. The people near where the man used to beg are not sure it is him, even though he keeps telling them he is the man. The Pharisees doubt the account, even though some people and the man testify that it was him. His parents confess that he was born blind, but they are unwilling to say how--that’s understandable given that they were probably encouraged to confess the sin that had caused the son to be born blind. Only the healed man really sees. And he is consistent in his testimony. Jesus put mud on his eyes, told him to wash, and now he sees.
As the grilling continues, however, notice how the man’s testimony changes, keeping in mind that he had been reduced to begging and that his deformity was proof of his (or his parents’) grave sins against God. When the Pharisees point out that Jesus is a sinner for healing on the Sabbath, the healed man points out the character of God. We know that God does not listen to sinners (I bet he has heard that line more than once in his life), but He does listen to one who worships Him and obeys His will. . . If this man were not from God, He could do nothing. Yet the man stands before them able to see and healed! For his true testimony, and in response to the glory of God, the man is ridiculed by the Pharisees for having been born entirely in sin and tossed out of the Temple.
We talk often about Jesus calling us to abundant life. There is no “that’s good enough” in God’s economy. He promises us a Wedding Feast. He changes water into the best wine. He instructs us that the Holy Spirit will empower us to do even more amazing works than He does. This is another of those stories which remind us that we are not called to settle for good enough. Had Jesus healed the man’s blindness and gone from there, the man no doubt would have been grateful. After all, he will be the man who was cured of his blindness from this time forward. But, even with his sight restored, the man’s position still is not changed. The Pharisees mock him for daring to remind them about the character of God and cast him out. As before, he is still alone.
Until he is approached once again by Jesus, that is. Jesus hears that the man has been cast out and goes in search of him. He asks the man if He believes in the Son of Man. The man is willing to believe in the Son, but he admits he has no idea who the Son is. Jesus says that He is the Son of Man. The man confesses simply that he believes, and he kneels down and worships Jesus. In all the Gospel of John, the man born blind is the only one said to do this!
In Lent, we are called to self-examination to discern our sins and to consider our need for a Savior. One of the results of a successful Lent, a good discipleship, ought to be a boldness about our faith. Over the last three weeks, we have read the Gospel account of Nicodemus, of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, and of the man born blind. Each encounters Jesus. Though each has a different background story, though each is a unique individual, what happens as a result of the encounter with the messiah?
Nicodemus is part of the “in crowd.” He is a member of the Sanhedrin. He has a certain reputation to protect. Ironically, of the three, his coming to faith is the slowest, perhaps because he mistakenly believes he has much to lose. Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night, so as not to be seen by his associates. His conversion is slow. Yes, in a few chapters, he will sort of defend Jesus in front of the other Jewish leaders. But even then, he holds back. By the time of Jesus’ death, of course, Nicodemus is convinced that Jesus is the messiah, and he purchases the spices for Jesus body--an overt and loving act that cannot be hidden.
The Samaritan woman has had five husbands and now lives with a six man who is not her husband. We know she is the focal point of gossip because she comes to the well during the heat of the sun. Had we buried five husbands or five wives, we can well-imagine the attendant gossip. Her response to Jesus? She heads back into the city and asks everyone to come see the prophet who has told her everything she has done. He cannot be Messiah, can He? Her invitation is, of course, accepted. But by the end of the passage, we are told, those in the city no longer believe because she says. They believe because they have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
Today we read of the man born blind. In a few short verses after his encounter with the Son of Man, the man goes from being an outcast and a beggar to a proclaimer and teacher. The man shows a strength and boldness which even his parents cannot begin to show in gratitude to God for their son’s healing, and he begins to instruct those who would have taught others to shun him because of his blindness.
Three unique encounters share a common characteristic of boldness. Each of those three are forever transformed by their encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus eventually finds his way out of the “in group” to proclaim Jesus as Savior. The Samaritan woman finds the courage to reach out to those who gossip about her and share her experience of Jesus. She becomes, for all intents and purposes, the third most successful evangelist in the New Testament! And the man in today’s Gospel finds the courage to teach the teachers. Each of those who have encountered Jesus are forever emboldened by the encounter and the healing they have experienced. Each realizes, at the deepest level of their being, that Jesus is sufficient for all their needs and that He wants nothing more than to heal them completely. Jesus does not settle for good enough; nor should His disciples ever either!
Brothers and sisters, do you share that characteristic boldness for God about which we have read these last three weeks? Are you willing to speak the truth to those in power like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, or the man born blind? How do you respond when you find yourself, or see another, on the outs? Brothers and sisters, if we have never found ourselves at odds with the powerful of this world or discontented by the way things are, perhaps we are discipling ourselves in accordance with a God of our own fashioning, rather than the Lord revealed to us in Scripture. Faith, true faith, produces a boldness in the character of those who believe in Him. The assurances of Psalm 23 are so inwardly intertwined in our thoughts and in our feelings and in what we believe that our actions become visible signs of our worship and of our confidence in our Savior’s ability to redeem all things in our lives!
How is boldness expressed in our lives today? Truthfully, I think we Christians in the West have forgotten that we need boldness. An argument can be made, I think, that we have grown too comfortable with the powers of the establishment. While our brothers and sisters in other lands are put to death for their faith or forced to live in dumps or forced to live on the margins, we in the West complain about corporate religious rights and being mocked. Our healthcare system is broken. What can we do? Our economy is broken. What can we do? Millions of people are not being paid a living wage. What can we do? Children in our community, and others around the country, are living in abandoned houses, having been abandoned by their parents, trying simply to finish the school year. What can we do? People are enslaving others. What can we do? Autism is on the rise. What can we do? War has broken out in several areas in the world. What can we do? The numbers of hungry continue to grow. What can we do? The numbers of those abused continues to grow. What can we do? The use of heroin is on the rise. What can we do? Bullying is still bad. What can we do? This list could go on and on. Chances are, you have thought of more as I listed just a few. The question I have for you this day, though, is what are you doing about that seemingly insurmountable problem? Are you clucking your tongue wishing someone would do something? Or are you finding yourselves at odds with the powers that be and those in your life because you think God has called you to show forth His amazing grace in the world around you?
Nicodemus, the Samaritan lady, and the man born blind did not set out to change those around them. Chances are, Nicodemus liked things the way they were; the other two likely felt helpless to change their lot. Yet all three encountered the messiah and emerged radically transformed. Each was called by God to specific tasks, tasks of speaking the Kingdom-reality into the worldly-illusion. Was it costly? You bet. But what it costs them, and what it costs us, pales when compared to what it cost Him.
What if you find yourself provoked this morning by the Holy Spirit that you have not been bold in your life? Are you doomed? Absolutely not. Nicodemus testifies to that truth. All our Lord requires is that we repent of our ways and return to His. He has already paid the cost of our failures in full. He simply asks us to him use us to His honor and glory. All three stories are stories of amazing grace, just as the story of each one of us is as well. All He asks is that we share the story of how He redeemed us. The growth and harvest in the Kingdom? That’s up to Him!