Monday, March 20, 2017

Long Story #2

If you thought yesterday's gospel lesson (John 4:5:42) was long, buckle up for this week. Coming in at 858 words, John 9:1-41 is 11.3% longer than last week (word count of 858 vs. 771). Plus, we all know that the Passion Narrative is coming up in a few weeks on Palm Sunday, which is followed pretty closely by John's version on Good Friday. All told, we're reading a number of lengthy narratives this Lent. If the preacher has to read the gospel lesson, too, it may help to think of this as a marathon instead of a sprint. Sometimes, after hearing my own voice through a long gospel passage, I get bored halfway through a sermon, and that's not good for anyone.

This week's story about Jesus' healing of the man born blind is the kind of passage that cannot really be broken up. Was he born blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned? Neither, Jesus tells us. The miraculous healing happens, and the Pharisees are upset because it happened on the sabbath. Only a true prophet could perform a sign like this one, but a true prophet would not heal on the sabbath. Which is he? The man and his parents seem convinced, but the religious leaders are not. A debate arises about the nature of sin, and the formerly blind former beggar starts upstaging the authorities, so they quickly chase him away. Jesus finds him and reveals himself to him, and then there's one final jab at the Pharisees about being blind to their own sin.

John likes these lengthy stories. Unlike the synoptic accounts, he doesn't give snippets of narrative that follow each other and that combine to portray a single theological point. Instead, he digs in for the long haul. And so do we. And lessons like this one have so many layers that it is difficult for the preacher to pick just one. Yet, for the sake of all involved, I hope that the preacher will.

Sunday's sermon is still a long ways away, but there's one little line that has captured my imagination this morning, and I have a feeling that my sermon will be built on it. Deep in the conversation between the now-healed man and the Pharisees about Jesus' true identity, the man claims, "We know that God does not listen to sinners." Those words echo in my mind the way a careless claim uttered in an emotional argument reverberates between two people, revealing true feelings that otherwise would not have come to light. It's the kind of statement that stops an entire conversation. Of course, in the context of John 9, it doesn't stop the conversation. It's conventional wisdom. We all know that God does not listen to sinners! And everyone nods. But I want to stop the whole production and say, "Wait, what? God doesn't listen to sinners? Well, then, to whom does God listen?"

There are several different ways to preach John 9, but the theme that speaks most clearly to me is that of identity. Was the man born blind because he was a sinner or because his parents sinned? What does it mean to be a sinner? Could God possibly reveal himself to sinners like that? Like us? As the Pharisees make clear, this man was born in sin, yet he dares to lecture them about God. Unthinkable! But is it? At the end, Jesus claims that the Pharisees' sin remains not because they are blind but because they claim to be able to see.

In Jesus, God has heard the needs of his sinful people. They are the ones to whom God is manifest in the Son--not the religious authorities. The man born blind is an image for all of us. We are sinners even from our mothers' wombs. But God hears us. God listens to us. God saves us. There is hope for blind sinners like us--not because we can get there on our own but because God meets us where we are. That's the gospel.

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