Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.
Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.
What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John. Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus. These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.
This week we will look at the fifth sign.
Over the course of John’s account, Jesus and his disciples have been bouncing back and forth between Judea and Galilee. Galilee is up north. It is safe space; it is where Jesus’ family, friends, and supporters live. Judea, especially Jerusalem, is dangerous territory. Why? Because anytime Jesus appears in Jerusalem he stirs up the people. And the Jewish religious leaders don’t want that, because if the people get stirred up then Rome gets stirred up. And when Rome gets stirred up, bad things happen.
So now Jesus and the disciples are back in Jerusalem. They pass a blind man, and there we pick up our story.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.
Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
The story begins with a simple question: Rabbi, who sinned? This man, or his parents? Neither, said Jesus. You’re coming at this the wrong way. No one sinned; instead this happened–for a purpose–so that the works of God might be displayed. Jesus then did as he usually did and took the conversation somewhere that had nothing whatsoever to do with the original subject. My identity, he says in effect, will never be more clear than it is right now.
Go and wash, says Jesus. This is foreshadowing; the blind man walks by faith, trusting the word of someone whom he cannot see. He washes, and he can see. So he goes home.
His family takes him to the Pharisees, because that’s what you do when you were ill but then are healed, before you can reenter Jewish community life and worship. But now the soundtrack changes. You see, this was a Sabbath.
As we know from prior editions, the Pharisees had 39 categories of things you couldn’t do on the Sabbath, without being in violation of the command not to work on the Sabbath. Among these things: You couldn’t mix or knead. Also you couldn’t practice medicine of any sort, except to save a life. Jesus was guilty on both counts. Consequently, Jesus was not from God because he did not keep the Sabbath. To the Pharisees this was a no-brainer. But in reality, as we know already, it was only their version of the Sabbath that Jesus didn’t keep.
How can a sinner perform such signs? they asked. Their was not any room in their theological categories for what was happening right before their very eyes. This is what Francis Collins would call “willful blindness”: when there is something to see but you don’t want to look.
In the face of increasing pressure from the Pharisees the formerly blind man grows more insistent. I don’t have all the answers, he says, but I do know this: I was blind but now I can see. I’ve already told you everything, but you don’t want to listen. Do you want to become his disciples too? To which the Pharisees responded: You were steeped in sin from birth. You deserved this. Your parents deserved this. Bye.
Willful blindness. Refusing to see what is there to be seen, because it falls outside our theological categories. When you engage in this, you run the risk of leaving outside the context of your spirituality many people whom God loves, and perhaps even God Himself. As Christians, we should be excited about any context in which people are moving toward God, even if it does not fit inside the context of our theological presuppositions. God is bigger than anyone’s theological categories, and it is not OK to not look if there is something to be seen.