March 22, 2020 – Lent 4A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.
Normally, we would be entering that stretch of the year when there’s only one thing that comes on our television at night: baseball. Elizabeth and I don’t watch a lot of television, but, from late March through October, there’s a good chance that we’ll be watching a Cubs game or a Braves game or just about any team’s game in the evening. That means that any other shows we’d like to watch have to wait until the World Series is over. Of course, baseball ends right when the football season is getting interesting, so, really, the only time we try to watch a show is in between the Super Bowl and Opening Day—February and early March. A week or so ago, we finished the first season of True Detective, and, since it’s become clear that baseball won’t be starting anytime soon, we’ve decided to give something else a try.
Have you seen the HBO miniseries Chernobyl? I figured that the middle of a pandemic was the perfect time to immerse ourselves in a fictionalized docudrama about nuclear fallout and government conspiracy. We’ve only seen one episode, but it’s already clear that the Soviet authorities’ response to the crisis will mirror that of today’s skeptics, who would rather downplay the significance of COVID-19 than tell the world the difficult truth it needs to hear in order to mitigate its terrible effects.
In that first episode, the nuclear reactor core explodes. A violent shockwave rocks the community, and then a fire erupts at the plant. The only problem is that nuclear reactor cores don’t explode. They melt down. So, when plant workers report to their bosses that the core had exploded, their bosses respond by saying that those workers must be delusional. Reactor cores don’t explode. They melt down. In order to get a clearer picture of what happened, those bosses send a different team of employees into the reactor to get a look at the problem, and, when those employees come back, marred by radiation, and report that they saw an open-air reactor core fire, the bosses again dismiss the reports as stress-induced fabrication. When another worker reports seeing graphite fragments of the reactor core amidst the rubble, his report is rejected as a mistake. Even when the boss himself is doubled-over and vomiting because of radiation poisoning, still the truth cannot be accepted. Why? Because reactor cores don’t explode. They melt down.
Sometimes disbelief like that is a choice. We refuse to believe even what we see with our own eyes because we refuse to accept it as true. Other times, though, the truth is so astounding, so truly unbelievable, that, even if we wished to believe it, we couldn’t. The question for us is whether we will acknowledge why we won’t or can’t believe.
In John 9, when Jesus heals a man born blind, we encounter two irreconcilable truths: If Jesus was able to give sight to the blind man, he must be from God, yet, if he ignored the religious laws about the sabbath, he cannot be from God. When Jesus spat on the ground, made mud, and spread it on the blind man’s eyes so that he could be healed, Jesus broke the laws governing the sabbath. That’s irrefutable. But, when he gave sight to a man who had been born blind, he did something that had never been done before—something only God could have made possible. So which is it? Is Jesus a sinner, or is he a man of God?
The religious authorities were perplexed by that strange collision of truths, and they tried every way they could think of to explain it. First, they asked whether they were dealing with the same man or with a look-alike. “He looks like the blind man who used to sit here and beg, but maybe it’s someone else,” they said to themselves. But the man kept telling them, “It’s me! I am the man,” but they didn’t understand how that was possible.
So they started to ask questions about his blindness. If it really was the same man, maybe they were wrong about his condition. Maybe he wasn’t actually born blind. So they asked his parents, “Is this your son, whom you say was born blind? How is it that he is now able to see?” But the parents didn’t give them the answer they wanted, saying, “All we know is that he is our son and that he was born blind, but, if you want to know how he is now able to see, you should ask him yourselves. He’s old enough to give you an answer.”
But, when they interrogated the man a second time, their confusion quickly became impatience, and they began to turn against the man who had been healed. “Give glory to God!” they demanded, using a religious formula that requires an honest response. Now, the man who had been healed was on trial. If someone was being dishonest, it must have been him. After all, he was born blind, and the religious authorities knew that a just God wouldn’t let a child be born without his sight unless he or his parents had done something to deserve it. It was easier to lay blame upon the man who was the embodiment of sin than to try to answer unanswerable questions about Jesus. It was easier to expel the source of the confusion than to live with the ambiguity and inexplicability of how God was at work in him. So, when that once-blind man began to turn the inconsistencies back on his interrogators, they refused to listen and drove him out.
It’s easy for us to see the truth because we know who Jesus really is. We live in the light of the resurrection. Even in Lent, we know that, after Jesus died on the cross, on the third day, God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. In the resurrection, God shows us whose side Jesus is on, so, even if we don’t understand how to explain what happened, we know the answer to the irreconcilable conundrum that the healing of the blind man represents. But I wonder whether we know how it is that we get to that point of knowing the answer.
Whose side is Jesus on? In our own day, we encounter a fresh version of that same irreconcilable conundrum. Either Jesus is God’s Son, the Incarnate One, the sinless redeemer of the world, or Jesus is the radical rabbi who looks down on religious leaders and prefers the company of notorious sinners and social pariahs. Surely it can’t be both. “We know that God does not listen to sinners.” We know that God does not dwell in sin. But we know that Jesus spent his time hanging out with the ungodly people of his day. So which is it? Is Jesus God-among-us, or did he enjoy spending his time with sinners? If we can’t figure out how to make sense of that collision of truths, we won’t understand who Jesus really is.
There are lots of ways that Christians try to make sense of that paradox. Some find it easier to give up the traditional understanding of Jesus as God incarnate. They think of him as a wise teacher who taught us how to love the unlovable among us, but they don’t have much use for the miracles or signs that point to his divinity—supernatural feats of wonder that defy explanation. More often, though, Christians make sense of Jesus by forgetting his preference for the poor, the powerless, and the sinful. After all, it’s easier to identify with a God who works in powerful ways than a God who stoops down to embrace the kind of people we’d rather not see or smell in our churches.
So who is Jesus, really? The one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, or a prophet whose association with outcasts reminds us that we, too, must care for the poor? Of course, we know the answer is both, but, to get there, something has to give. And that something is us.
We cannot know Jesus Christ if we separate God’s power and God’s humility, if we divorce God’s majesty and God’s emptiness. Jesus doesn’t just teach us about God. He shows us God. He brings God to us and us to God. In Jesus’ love for sinners, we see God’s love for sinners. In his preference for the poor and marginalized, we see God’s preference for the same. To see that, though, requires the impossible—a change within us that we cannot accomplish on our own. It means leaving behind everything we’ve ever known about holiness and goodness and rightness and believing a truth about God that we cannot believe even if we want to—even if we see it with our own eyes. To see what God would show us, we must become blind. To live in that truth, we must die with Christ and be raised by God into new life. That’s what it means to be a Christian.