Thursday, March 23, 2017

John's Lenten Series of Main Characters

This Sunday we hear the story of the man born blind in John 9. Last week, it was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The week before that it was Nicodemus in John 3. Next Sunday it will be Lazarus and his sisters in John 11. Do you see a pattern here? Each of these is a fairly lengthy gospel text. Each of them features a prominent character or characters in John's account. And each of them is a story about seeing and recognizing the messiah.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above...No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man."
The woman at the well said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming...When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” And Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
After he had healed him, Jesus said to the man born blind, “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.”
Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Maybe this is a post for next week, when I'm looking for a sermon on John 11, but I don't think it's too early to recognize what the lectionary authors are doing to us. With the exceptions of the first Sunday in Lent, when we always read the story of Jesus' temptation, and the last Sunday in Lent, when we always read the story of Jesus' passion, we spend each week asking, "Who is Jesus really?" Of course, one could say the same about the first and last weeks in Lent, too, as we discover Jesus' identity during his encounter with Satan or see his true kingship as he is crowned with thorns. All of that suggests that if we leave Lent 2017 without grappling with Jesus' true messianic identity we will have missed the point.

Even though most of these readings are from John, that seems a particularly appropriate theme for Year A, when we're usually dwelling in Matthew's gospel account. Of all the gospel editors, Matthew seems most interested in Jesus' identity as the Jewish Messiah. And what do we see? What are these particular lessons showing us?

Jesus speaks to a leader of the Jewish tradition (Nicodemus), and that leader cannot quite grasp his identity, though he comes around fully by the end of the gospel account. Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman who, by virtue of her religious-ethnic heritage, would not have known what it meant to look for a messiah, yet she seems to get it fully. Jesus appears to a man born blind and heals him, and, although the man initially is not sure who Jesus really is, the antagonism presented by the religious authorities helps clarify in the man's mind that Jesus, indeed, is the expected one. Finally, at the tomb of his friend, Jesus speaks to Martha and appropriates last-day resurrection hope to himself, and Martha accepts this, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. What does this tell us?

God reveals himself to those we wouldn't expect to see him. A position of power makes it harder for someone to see the truth. Letting go of one's theological presumptions is an important part of beholding Jesus as savior. Guess what! Those of us who faithfully make our way through Lent by coming to church each week are more likely Nicodemus than the Samaritan woman. If we're going to be Marthas, we need to recognize our inherited blindness. Believe it or not, we're only halfway through this season. There's still time to ask God to strip us down and open our eyes so that we might receive the one who has come into the world to save us.

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