April 3, 2011

A Man Blind from Birth

Passage: John 9:1

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a clever way to detect student cheating on homework.  “The professor, David E. Pritchard, led a research team that analyzed student performance in an online homework system …. The researchers were able to measure the time spent on each question and look for suspicious work patterns. If a student took less than a minute each answering several complex questions and got them all right, for instance, the system flagged that as likely cheating.”  The research also found that frequent cheaters ended up doing poorly on their exams.

As he (Jesus) walked 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?’ The disciples express a then common attitude about congenital blindness; either this was the sin of a parent being visited on the next generation (a misapplication of Exodus 20:5) or the result of his own sin.  Either way the blind man was discussed as a theological curiosity; he was not regarded as a person to be helped.

Whether explaining poor examination results in our technological era or explaining a person blind from birth in first century Israel we want the universe to operate on a principle of quid pro quo.  You have poor exam results because you cheat; you are blind because you or your parents sinned.  Things have a way of balancing out; people will get what they deserve.

"Well, he got what he deserved, got what he asked for”; we say this in any number of ways. She smoked too much, he ate at McDonalds too often, he engaged in high-risk sex, she didn't take her medications regularly enough, he wouldn't listen to his parents. He had it coming to him. She got what she asked for.”

Are things really this straightforward?  The vagaries of human suffering do not yield so easily to the rational explanations of quid pro quo—however cleverly devised they may be.  What is inherently irrational will never yield itself to rational explanation.

1. Still, the disciples want Jesus to explain how to understand the blind man.  Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  We always want God to explain. There must be a reason for this that is so inherently unreasonable; at disease is ravaging the life of a loved one and something in us wants to believe that there must be some sort of purpose in all of this.  It just can’t be as mindless as it feels; we hope.

People sometimes look to their minister hoping that she or he will have a word that makes sense of senselessness.  Let me ask you; if disease had a purpose would that somehow soften the miseries of the disease?  When I was a boy my mother would warn that if I played outside insufficiently bundled up with clothing I would “catch a cold”.  Even if there were a direct correlation between how bundled up I was on a winter day and catching a cold the miseries of the cold never seemed a reasonable thing to me.  (i.e. my sore throat was a reasonable trade off for wearing no hat)

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned”, replies Jesus, to our inquiry of how to make sense of such things.  You will not find any sufficient answer in your quid pro quo systems, said Jesus.  Disease is not to be regarded as God’s punishment for sin as if God were the author of disease.

Jesus continues with his answer: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Is Jesus saying that the reason this man is born blind was so he could serve as a prop to illustrate Jesus healing ministry; is his blindness something God did to him so people could be amazed that God heals?  I think we need to reject that idea because that would make God the author of blindness, albeit for a good cause; an idea that Jesus has just rejected in saying God didn’t give him blindness because of sin.

Consider this: Jesus utterance about the purpose of this man’s blindness is the very purpose of every person’s life—“so that God’s works might be revealed in him (or, in you).”  Is this not why God has given all of us our life?  Jesus goes on to say—“we must work the works of him who sent me.”  Jesus lives his own life “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

I recently read a story about a twelve year old boy named Anson Hui. At the age of three, he was diagnosed with Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD), meaning his body can't break down or store sugars. He requires frequent daytime and night-time feedings; at the age of five, he experienced developmental delays that doctors feared were connected to autism. At that point in his life, he couldn't speak sentences with more than three syllables; he was often a target for school-yard bullies. No wonder that Anson often asked, "Why did God put me here?"

However, Anson also discovered that he had a gift. He said, "While everyone else was busy talking, I listened and listened to all the sounds around me." His listening skills helped him develop another gift—perfect or absolute pitch. Anson discovered that he could memorize and then master complex piano pieces with astounding speed and proficiency. Anson has won numerous awards and even performed in Carnegie Hall. Anson's trials and his gifts have led him to declare his deep faith in the living God: "I can't decide many things that God has already planned, but I can still choose to work on my dream because I still have workable hands and a body to do it.”

Anson recently received more difficult news. An MRI revealed a benign tumour around his liver, which could lead to a liver transplant, a tricky procedure for any patient with his disorder. But once again, Anson finds solace in God's faithfulness. In a recent interview Anson said, “I know [there's] always a reason for God to give me a special body and talent. My dream is to be a tool of God … so in the end, I can hand in a beautiful [report] to my Lord in heaven with honour. And the most important thing is—I will never regret this journey on earth.”

2. It isn’t just Anson Hui who understands that God’s works can be revealed in him even in the face of disease.  John Calvin’s was sick much of his life; migraine headaches, arthritis, kidney stones, gout and more; he sometimes was carried to the pulpit to preach.  He died at 55 years of age.  To say that is literary output was astounding is to understate it; work that has profoundly influenced the protestant church.

"Don’t be a Soren!", Danish parents admonish their children to this day, "Soren" being synonymous with a ridiculousness so pronounced as to be both laughable and contemptible. Soren Kierkegaard born in 1813 died at 42 years of age; had some physical deformities that newspaper cartoonists routinely caricatured; he was derided as an eccentric and hired thugs threatened him.  In the face of such opposition his literary output is also remarkable—many consider him the greatest thinker to arise in Christendom.

The thing we must be careful to note is that it wasn’t their disease, disability, or deformity that produced in them the things they achieved.  In our era we like to speak of the “differently-abled” rather than the “disabled”; indeed there is some wisdom in that effort.  When the disciples saw this blind man they saw a man receiving recompense for sin.  Jesus saw a man through whom God’s works might be revealed.

It is also important to note that Jesus takes action to relieve this man of his blindness.  In saying that he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him, Jesus was not calling his blindness a good thing; his blindness wasn’t perceived by Jesus as a gift so he could develop his other senses.  We know this because Jesus immediately moves to offer the man a cure.

Clearly, then, an aspect of the “works of God who sent Jesus” is to help relieve human suffering as we can.  John Wesley believed you should do all the good you can.  He spent himself tirelessly on behalf of the socially submerged. In 1746 he established the first free pharmacy in London; he published a book of cures.  It wasn’t just physical suffering he sought to relieve.  Haunted especially by the plight of widows, he reconditioned two small homes for them. Outraged that his people were denied access to banks, he scraped together fifty pounds and began assisting those who needed small amounts of investment capital. (One fellow established a bookselling business which eventually became the largest in England.)

It seems to me that the work of Freedom House Orphanages in Haiti—our Lenten project—is a work that relieves suffering in line with the actions and teachings of Jesus in our story.

We note from this story that these things that debilitate life are neither a barrier to nor a measure of the purpose of a life; whatever the circumstances of our birth our life is given us “so that God’s works might be revealed” in us.  At the same time the work God calls us to do is help relieve suffering as we can.

3. Perhaps you noticed as the story was read; there seem to be a lot of unhappy people in this story.  One man is grinning from ear to ear; the man who had been given his sight.  It seems that many others are not so pleased.  The problem for many was that to accept this man’s story as stated would imply some things they were not ready to embrace; in particular things about who Jesus really is.

You would think that people would be happy at this man’s good fortune; but we know better.  Think about how we often regard people who experience a financial windfall in life; jealousy is a more common response than delight for them.  In families bitterness too often emerges when one member of the family is seen to prosper a little more than the rest.

Further, we don’t like things to change drastically like this because it challenges how we perceive life; we want the blind man to remain at his place by the road begging because we have life figured out and we know what that means and how to account for it.  You know the saying “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t”.  I witnessed again and again in leadership development work that when a leader in a company tried to make a behaviour change for the better the people around him were at first quite suspicious of the “new and improved” leader.  They much preferred the grumpy old bear they knew because at least they knew what to expect.

The big challenge for the people of this story has to do with Jesus.  In the next chapter John tells us of the divided opinion over Jesus.  Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

Well, what do you think?  The blind man’s testimony would be the same to us if he were in our sanctuary this morning as it was to everyone who asked him then—“though I was blind, now I see.”  Lots of people then thought he wasn’t really blind (it’s not a miracle, Jesus is a fraud).  Many reserved judgement—“how can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” The blind man said, “Lord, I believe.”  John calls Jesus’ miracles signs—they point in a particular direction.  They do not prove he is God as if to validate an instance of miraculous healing would mean everyone will draw the appropriate conclusion.  They point; they signify something.  Will we look in that direction?

4.  There is another blindness that this man is being cured of in this story.  In the first part of the story this man describes Jesus as “the man called Jesus”.  This is the way many regard Jesus if they regard him at all—he is a man who lived and died in the first century.

As the man is pressed and questioned about his cure he will not (cannot) relent that he was actually given his sight.  The Pharisee interrogators asked the man about Jesus “What do you say about him?”  “He is a prophet”, said the man.  You will notice that he has moved from Jesus the man to Jesus the prophet.  Many today find themselves there; there is something special about Jesus.  He couldn’t open the eyes of a blind man otherwise.

After the religious leaders drove this newly-sighted man out of the synagogue Jesus came and found him.  ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’, Jesus asked.   He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

May we each know the joy of believing.