March 26, 2017

Do You Believe in the Son of Man?

Passage: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41
Service Type:

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 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.

Near the end of January I received a phone call from one of the members of our congregation. This woman had gone through a series of difficult chemo treatments and called to share with me the good news that follow up tests revealed that the treatments had indeed had their intended benefit for her. We had been praying for her; journeying with her through the ups and downs, twists and turns, good days and anxious days. I was so delighted to receive that phone call and hear the excitement and thanksgiving to God in her voice. She expressed heartfelt gratefulness for peoples’ prayers knowing that the success of treatments that promote the healing mechanisms in our bodies are placed there by the creative genius of God. It was happy news—it didn’t mean everything was perfect but happy news nonetheless.

We read today of a man born blind who received his sight from the hand of the Great Physician. As I reread this story it struck me that not many people are happy about the miraculous turn of events in this man’s life. The only person who seems to be smiling is the man who was blind but now sees. How is it that few, if any, could be happy for him? To be sure, everything isn’t perfect. He has to learn now how to live as a sighted person with all the responsibility that this entails. Even so, isn’t this a happy thing? Reflect with me about how people responded to this man now grinning from ear to ear because, for the first time in his life, he can see.

1. I do understand those who didn’t recognize him. It was probably the smile on his face that kept some folks from recognizing him. Oh, they’d seen him for years. But rarely had they seen him at eye level. Instead they’d long ago grown accustomed to seeing this hapless man sitting on the ground near the entrance to the farmer’s market. He had a tin cup in front of him, a white cane propped up next to him, and he stared out at the world with two eyes that were clearly as dead as two pale pieces of china. He was what every pregnant woman prayed would not happen to her child. He was not the kind of person you wanted to linger over. A quick glance is about all most people managed before averting their eyes.

But now, suddenly, he’s walking around town smiling and repeating over and over—as though a mantra—“I once was blind but now I see!” And the townsfolk stopped and stared. “Is that? No, couldn’t be. Still . . . I think that’s him.” Others chimed in, “Of course it’s not him—blind people don’t get better. It’s probably just someone who looks like him.” But the man himself put that idea to rest. “No, it really is me. I once was blind but now I see!”
What happens next is telling. People start asking how he got his sight. And that is when difficulty starts for this man. Listen again to his answer. “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.” The man called Jesus. As soon as he mentioned Jesus walls go up. We need to send this guy to the Pharisees so he can get properly sorted out.

Is this not the response we often get in our world? As soon as we have the temerity to mention Jesus resistance emerges. People are just fine if you praise the skill and wisdom of doctors when you have some victory from disease or suffering; but when you mention prayer and gratefulness to Jesus the Great Physician by whose hand the wonders of human health come then a wall goes up. Some look down on you as if you had uttered some mindless superstition. There are some who just don’t want God around.

2. Now some in this story are willing to entertain the idea that God was at work in this man’s life but it had best be on their terms and according to their pre-conditions. For the Pharisees it was simple: “If this man Jesus were of God we’d know it because do things according to our rules. “This man healed on the Sabbath so he can’t be of God!” This Jesus fellow doesn’t fit that bill They’d know he was of God when they saw him and Jesus . . . well, he was not it!

It’s sobering, isn’t it, to see the contortions of the Pharisees here. They will condemn anyone, say anything, deny iron-clad facts if that’s what it takes to prop up their own views of God. If it were not so tragic, it would be really, really funny. But as it stands, the only funny thing in this story is the healed man’s smiling face and his own contagious enthusiasm for Jesus. “I once was blind but now I see! I’ve been touched by the power of God!” When the Pharisees tell him that God had nothing to do with this Jesus fellow, his reaction is as honest as it is accurate: “Well, OK, but if you can explain what happened to me without reference to God, I’d love to hear it! Because—and forgive me if I’ve mentioned this before—I once was blind but now I see!”

For the Pharisees, the healing isn’t the problem, Jesus is the problem. Apparently it’s fully possible to be in the presence of the light of the world and still be in the dark. But if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the religious people in this story who seem the most prone to put on spiritual sunglasses to keep out the light, the story might be less troubling. Jesus remains this sort of problem for many in the religious world today. I see this in the church and seminary where the name of Jesus is studiously avoided by many in favour of saying God because it is perceived to be less particular, more generic, and less offensive. The particular man Jesus of Nazareth is simply too much for them.

Jesus told us that in the world there would be trouble for his followers. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” David Marshall is a Christian author most recently of Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels. He wrote an article that appeared in February 2017 issue of the journal First Things. For the last three years he helped run a program for high school students in Hunan Province, China, who wish to study in American universities.

Curious about aspects of Chinese self-image he borrowed an eleventh-grade history text from one of his students. History Three is part of the standard curriculum in Chinese schools which carefully combines the stories of China and Western civilization. In this history there is no mention of Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad. It is my experience that our Canadian public education also avoids talk of these religious figures. Marshall makes a similar point about American public schools.

Marshall’s final paragraph is illuminating. “Rudyard Kipling said, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, until, he continued (we forget), they finally join “at God’s great Judgement Seat.” But presently, pedagogues in East and West meet in conciliatory godlessness that agrees to keep the crucified saviour hidden from the eyes of schoolchildren.” Jesus was a problem for many in the first century and continues so today.

In this story it is not the healed man who stands at the centre of the discussion; he is the occasion of the stone of offence; in the centre stands Jesus.

3. I invite you to explore the story from another vantage point. Observe with me the experience of the blind man. We are told that as Jesus “walked along” he saw a man born blind. The man can’t see Jesus. I’m not sure that he heard the disciples question about him—whose fault is this? The man because of his sin or the parents because of their sin? If he did overhear he must have been tired of being a curious artifact; being spoken about but never spoken to. He doesn’t ask Jesus to be healed—rather, Jesus initiates making the mud and putting it in his eyes. He can hear Jesus but can’t see him. He goes to the pool and washes and now can see. Imagine the joyful wonder and amazement filling this man’s heart. The world he had only heard about, described with words he cannot apprehend—i.e what would the words red or green mean to him—all this and much more floods into his mind.

It’s even grander than we mostly realize. For many of us, we’ve grown accustomed to reading stories about Jesus’ healing a blind person—a person who then starts walking or running around the same as anyone else. We are so accustomed to this kind of thing in the gospels that we the powerful wonder of such a miracle. The neurologist Oliver Sacks pointed out, for once-blind people to function, they need to have not just their optic hardware repaired but they need to get the necessary mental software installed, too. Things like depth perception, for example, come through sighted experience.

At first this newly sighted man is able to speak about his healer as “the man Jesus.” Is this not where many begin? Some experience in life brings us to an awareness of the man Jesus. When faith begins in a person often little is known of God. The book I spoke by author David Marshall is written to respond to the assertion by many that Jesus is a mythical character constructed for religious purposes. History does confirm there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth. The healed man knows it was this Jesus who intervened in his life.

As the story progresses and the man is questioned by the Pharisees he concludes that Jesus must be a prophet. (John 9:17) The question put to him by the Pharisees about Jesus is whether Jesus was from God or not. As the man hears the debate in this divided group of Pharisees he concludes Jesus is a prophet. And I believe many of us know of this progression. Jesus has come on to our radar and the more we think and learn of him there is a conviction that he isn’t just an ordinary man. He has a special role to play in the world. Many might say he is a good teacher with insights that help humanity.

In the next step of this man’s experience he concludes that Jesus is from God. “Never since the world began” asserted the blind man, “has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” I notice that this man’s convictions are forged in the midst of being harassed into rejecting Jesus. But he cannot. He was blind and now can see. This he cannot deny.

Perhaps you have found as I have that identifying yourself with Jesus can bring turmoil and opposition. Why isn’t the road to believing easy? I invite you to consider the God wastes nothing—not even opposition can separate you from the love of Jesus. I have found that it is in the midst of opposition that convictions have formed in a clearer way with regard to Jesus that have helped me in untold ways. The verbal battering this man took served to convince him more of God love. The fact that Jesus is so reviled witnesses to me that there is much more to Jesus than his detractors have to say about him.

And the last step in this man’s progression comes in this wonderful interchange with Jesus. Jesus said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 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.” The question “do you believe” has the force of “do you put your trust in.” The Son of Man is the title that anticipates Jesus self-giving on the cross as the judge takes the place of the judged.

The last phrase of Jesus’ self-identification to this man is identical to what he said to the woman at the well, “the one speaking with you is he.” The blind man had heard Jesus before now hears and sees him. This is the personal encounter of knowing one another. Our Lord has put a similar question to all his disciples. It is for us too. Do you believe the Son of Man? The blind man is now able to say “I believe.” And he worshipped Jesus. His witness to Jesus is also for us that we might too say “I believe” and live life worshipping him.

The sentence in this story that I love; that leaps off the page to me every time I read it is this one:” Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man? When he found him. Jesus came and found him. In this moment of utter rejection by so many Jesus came and found him. I think I love it because I know that Jesus also came and found out me.

There is a pattern in John’s gospel in these encounter stories with Jesus we have been considering through Lent. First Nicodemus, next the woman at the well, and now the healing of the man born blind. The pattern John follows is to give us a vivid recounting of the events followed by teaching of Jesus that the story illustrates or that explains the story. We read today to the end of chapter 9 but the teaching of Jesus extends into the 21st verse in chapter 10. The opening of chapter 10 is when Jesus says he is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep and wants abundant life for them. This is how we are to understand his action towards this blind man who does not ask to be healed. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” This is what is happening for this blind man. In the particulars of our life it is the same. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 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.