He Saw a Man Blind from Birth
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
Perhaps you've heard the phrase "to turn a blind eye." The saying comes from a 19th century British naval battle. On April 2, 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, the British fleet was attacking the combined navies of Denmark and Norway. Three British ships ran aground, so the admiral, Hyde Parker, decided that the fire of battle was "too hot for Nelson to oppose." So Parker sent an order, through signal flags, that the younger admiral Horatio Nelson should "Discontinue Action" and withdraw.
When Nelson heard his own signalman relay the order, he pretended not to hear him. Nelson had no intention of obeying the order. He turned to his captain and said, "This day may be the last for us at any moment," even as a Danish cannonball struck his ship's mainmast, scattering splinters all around him. Such action was typical of Nelson; he'd already lost sight in his right eye in a previous battle. So when he pressed again to respond to Parker's order, Nelson told his flag captain Thomas Foley, "You know, Foley, I only have one eye—I have the right to be blind sometimes," and then Nelson held up his telescope to his right eye and said, "I really do not see the signal!"
Not all blindness is wilful. In our gospel story there was a man born blind. The disciples couldn’t see past their assumption about the cause of blindness. The neighbours’ sight was greatly hampered by their conviction that people born blind won’t ever see—the man who received his site had a tough time convincing some, “No, it really is me.” The Jewish leaders couldn’t see beyond their jealousy and hatred of Jesus. The man’s parents were hampered by fear. The Apostle John refers to the miracles of Jesus as signs—the Admiral of the universe was sending a signal, so to speak. A lot of people did not see what this sign was signalling and some didn’t want to know what the signal said—wilfully choosing to ignore that which was abundantly evident.
Every day you see the world and the events that unfold in your life according to a certain narrative. When you read news story or listen to news broadcast the events are reported with an overall story in mind; as events are described we are being asked to see things in a particular way. Two reports on the same events can be cast very differently; the person reported on is for some a hero and for others a villain. Where some see “freedom fighters” others see “rebels.” All our “sight” is like this; influenced by a number of factors.
We read again this story of Jesus healing a man born blind. John says it was a sign. What was God signalling? It happened a long time ago—but is God not still signalling a message to us? Is the sign too worn out to make out the words to know what it says? I invite you to reflect with me on what Jesus sees which, I believe, points us in the direction for what he intends us to see. We are called by Christ to see the events of our lives through the narrative of the gospel; the narrative of the good news that is Jesus Christ.
1. As he (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. What does Jesus see? First, he sees the one who is suffering. Yes, it was likely quite obvious that this man was blind—once you looked at him. We aren’t told that the disciples drew Jesus’ attention to this man but that Jesus saw him. Our Lord is on the lookout for the hurting of this world.
If we were to read the Older Testament as Jesus did this should not be a surprise to us; it is evident that this is who Jesus would “keep a sharp eye” to see. A reading of the Psalms, for example, discloses to us the heart of God who is said to be on the lookout for the hurting. God’s care of the hurting, the poor, the needy is and often repeated refrain of the Psalms. Listen to just a few texts.
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan. (Psalm 10:14)
‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,’ says the Lord; ‘I will place them in the safety for which they long.’ (Psalm 12:5)
As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. (Psalm 40:17)
For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds. (Psalm 69:33)
With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord; I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save them from those who would condemn them to death. (Psalm 109:30-31)
He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, (Psalm 113:7)
I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)
The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. (Psalm 145:14)
The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, (Psalm 146:7b-9)
I read to you excerpts from 9 different Psalms—the first Psalm 10 the last Psalm 146. The theme is woven throughout the Psalms from start to finish—I limited the references to just 9 as a sufficient number to make the point. If one was in the habit of using the Psalms as a prayer book—I think one of its intended uses—this narrative of God’s love for the hurting would shape how you see people around you, as it did for Jesus.
Our Lord is on the lookout for the hurting. Not all hurts are as evident to others as this man’s blindness. In fact we do a great deal to cover up our hurts so as not to appear weak or vulnerable. We cover them up because we don’t want the wounds to be disturbed or the cars to be torn open again. Our Lord sees us in our wounds and hurts and helplessness and his intention in seeing such is to do something to relieve; to heal and restore. Our Lord does not want to dwell on the causes but to do a work in our lives that reveals what God can do; to bring glory to God—the very purpose God created us in his own image to fulfill.
2. Gloria Steinem once wrote, “Perhaps the worst thing about suffering is that it finally hardens the hearts of those around it.” We don’t mean to be uncaring but the sheer volume of human suffering is overwhelming—and, frankly, we each have enough of our own hurt that we can’t take on any more, or so it seems.
Take the disciples response to Jesus’ interest in this blind man. “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:2) The man’s blindness was, for the disciples, the subject of an academic discussion about its cause. The disciples debate the question of whose sin produced this suffering; they do not debate whether the presupposition behind this (that seeing suffering we can conclude sin) is valid. Most listeners today will reject the sort of reasoning present among the disciples who, seeing suffering, conclude sin. We consider ourselves to have better medical information. Still, it is not at all unusual for us to fall into the trap of reductive explanations for suffering. For example, we often hear the debate about whether personal troubles are attributable to nature or nurture; do we blame the person or the parents or some combination of the two?
Jesus sees the fact that he was born blind as an opportunity for “God’s works to be revealed in him.” When you put your had to relieve suffering you do the Lord’s work. But the needs are so great and we feel overwhelmed; it isn’t possible to do it all. But this is no barrier to being a help to some. Jesus saw this particular man on this particular day and helped him. I had the privilege to visit El Salvador in February on a mission trip with Les and Marg Frayne of SHARE Agricultural Foundation who were monitoring the projects SHARE supports. We visited four communities and saw the progress of their investment in these communities. The need is vast—there are 500 such communities in El Salvador—but I can tell you that a modest amount of help multiplies many times over.
Some of you will remember my missionary friend Reg Reimer—his work is supported by our Outreach ministry here at Central. In his year end letter of 2013 he sent to supporters he began with a citation from C.S. Lewis: “Enemy occupied territory. That is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” Reg went on to say: “The richest story-producing times in our lives and our children’s, have come from places we served on the cruel edges of the world – Vietnam War, Cambodia genocide, Ethiopia famine, Eritrean war and famine, Rwanda genocide, Sri Lank tsunami, to name some. We have stories of the great joys and heartaches of serving victims of these world-class disasters, man-made and natural.”
When you put your hand to relieve suffering, God will work through you in ways you cannot imagine. I have also found that my own hurts somehow are diminished, if not in fact disappear, in the process.
3. As he (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. On the tablet of your mind highlight the words “he saw a man.” Yes, he knew he was blind, but he saw a man, he saw a person he loved. Most of this man’s neighbour could only see that his blindness; it was the way they identified him. So much so that when he was given his sight by Jesus they did not recognize him. Some of the Jewish leadership were so blinded by their clinging to power and position they refused to acknowledge what was obvious to everyone—Jesus healed this man of his blindness.
I have been following the ongoing events in Canada with respect to our country’s laws on prostitution. In a recent article by journalist Deborah Rankin she cited the efforts of MP Maria Mourani and her fight against human trafficking (think slavery). She is behind a federal bill that adds sexual exploitation as a category to human trafficking. “We will not be able to fix the problem of human trafficking unless we address the root issue, which is prostitution, “she said. “We all know that 80 to 90 percent of human trafficking victims in Canada are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.” A criminologist by profession, Mourani says that the average age of entry into prostitution is 14, but she has seen girls as young 12. She calls prostitution a form of violence against women.
If we would see as Jesus sees it would revolutionize how we regard such topics as prostitution. He sees the person. When we talk of prostitution we need to see the woman (mostly female); she is someone’s daughter, sister, friend and often a mother as well and always a person made in the image of God. If we saw the person would we not want to protect them?
Let us push this practise of Jesus to see the person in another direction. We acknowledge that we find in life that friendship with some people feels easy, almost natural. Most of us have close friends and it just seems we gravitate to them; seeking them out feels effortless; when we plan a dinner party they are top of the list. I note that with Jesus he keeps a sharp eye for the hurting person. I think it behooves us, in following our Saviour, to be on the lookout for the person who needs a friend, to include the person who struggles, who does not easily fit in. I recall the pain of a friend as he told me that friend’s dinner invitations dropped sharply after his wife began to suffer with Alzheimer’s.
4. As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. What does Jesus want for this person? John calls Jesus’ miracles signs—signs pointing where? Jesus healed this man of his physical blindness but Jesus isn’t finished with him. There is more that he wants for him as marvelous as receiving his sight was.
Please note the progression in the story of this man and his encounter with Jesus. When he is first healed and asked who opened his eyes he answers—the man called Jesus. Then when the Pharisees begin to question him about who opened his eyes he said that Jesus was a prophet. Then when they turn up the heat on him to denounce Jesus as a fraud he says that Jesus must be from God otherwise he could never open anyone’s eyes unless he was. Then we read this; 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.
Note that Jesus went and found him. Jesus is ever seeking us; God pours all kinds of blessings into our lives unasked. Like this man God’s purpose is to bring us into relationship with himself in Jesus Christ. The purpose of John’s gospel is so we will believe—like this man who found both his physical and spiritual sight.
I leave you with a story from Reg Reimer’s letter I cited from earlier in this sermon.
There is the ongoing story of The Global War on Christians, the name of a recent book by John Allen, one among others like it, which tells of the suffering of many simply because they follow Jesus. A full three-quarters of religious persecution in the world is against Christians. Some leaders in government, media and academia are beginning to be aware. I am privileged to associate with people who work at the highest levels to increase such understanding. I am building my own friendship bridge with a top Vietnamese communist government religion official and scholar. In spite of deep differences, we have amazing conversations!
Doubtless you could name many more divides, alienations, and broken relationships, from micro/family to macro/global. People on the opposing sides of these long for better! Who and what can bridge the gulfs and breech the fences? What can bring them reconciling touch?
A Burmese woman who went to the seminary I attended, told this story. She remembers a horrible night when she was a little girl. Police burst into her home and dragged off her father for the “crime” of being a Christian pastor. It was two years before the family discovered his whereabouts in a prison camp and she was able to lay her eyes on him again. She desperately wanted to reach out her little hand to touch her Dad’s. But they were separated by two walls of heavy chain-link fence. Try as they might, they could not reach each other. Prisoners on one side and visitors opposite quietly observed, their pathos rising. Prisoners gathered round the father and other visitors around his daughter. Both groups leaned hard on the dividing fences, together bending the distance between the girl and her Dad just enough so that their fingers could touch.
In Jesus’ incarnation God the Father reached across all chasms and through all fences. He came a very long way to achieve and offer us salvation. He is ever ready to give us a hand up.