March 30, 2014 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lent 4 March 30, 2014 (Numbers 22:21-33)  John 9   Vision check

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Numbers 22:21-33

So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.”

John 9

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”  But he himself insisted, “I am the man.” “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked. He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.” “Where is this man?” they asked him.  “I don’t know,” he said.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”  The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”  Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”  The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”  Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

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Where there is no vision the people perish…” We hear these words in the book of Proverbs (29:18). And I know my vision needs checking when I can’t read the bottom lines of the vision chart at my annual physical… Or if I’m not seeing stop signs or other road signs when I’m driving, I know I really need my vision checked in a hurry.

But when I hear in our reading from Numbers today a talking donkey who sees an angel in the road – and a prophet who is supposed to see with divine insight, not seeing at all – and – in John’s gospel, a man born blind who sees fine, while religious leaders of the nation are blind as a bat as far as recognizing Jesus – I’m reminded there is vision and there is vision – and about now it’s probably time for one of our irregularly scheduled biblical vision checks.

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Jesus and his disciples, walking along, see a man born blind. Disciples ask Jesus: “who sinned, teacher, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Where they get this idea of blindness as punishment given a child for the sins of their parents – or for the sins of a child committed before birth – we don’t know – but we sure better know – it’s not from Jesus.)

But Jesus doesn’t embarrass his friends by scolding them in public. He just says, ‘neither because of his sin nor their sin – this blindness is so God can be seen working’ (meaning) so the light of the world can be made visible to all.

Jesus, the One sent from God, makes mud from spit and dirt and sends the man to wash in a spring called Siloam. The name of that spring means Sent. And like God making the first human from the dirty humus of the earth in the beginning, now Jesus makes mud and makes a new person – making eyes that see for a man born blind. Jesus tells us he himself is the light of the world, then gives eyesight to the blind, like first light breaking forth in the beginning.

And if the story was about just personal eyesight vision – the story would be already be over.

But… John’s gospel starts with the words “In the beginning was the Word” – recalling the first words of the bible –“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning it takes God seven days, speaking the Word, starting with let there be light, to create all things in heaven and earth. Bible scholars also notice seven scenes in John chapter nine – and again the first scene is let there be light.

In the beginning God calls forth creation starting with let there be light. But even Day One of creation isn’t done – till God sees it is good.

God’s seeing it is good completes each day of creation. God doesn’t see Day Two is good at least on Day Two, probably because God hasn’t made coffee yet. But Day Three with a few cups of java, God sees it’s good twice. Then God doubles-up again, seeing creation is good and very good on day six – with an extra seeing it is good thrown in for Day Seven, when God isn’t going to work at all – not even the work of seeing it’s good – probably so God can’t be accused of breaking the Sabbath on Day Seven. (Which is relevant because – )

Meanwhile back in John chapter nine, Jesus is on trial for breaking the Sabbath. Neighbors have brought the man-born-blind to Orthodoxy Police Headquarters for investigation, because Jesus, turns out, has given sight on a Sabbath. (Where there is no vision the people perish. Where there is un-licensed vision – we will take you to court.)

A religious court room drama is happening, with the blind man called as chief witness, and Jesus, nowhere to be seen, yet now on trial as an alleged Sabbath-violator.

Jesus has told us his Father is working on the Sabbath, that’s why he also works on the Sabbath (John 5). The work God does on the Sabbath, some of the Rabbis of old said, was the work of making tranquility, serenity, peace and repose…

But there always seems to be some religious people who want to be more orthodox than God. In the gospels we often see religious people out to bust Jesus for deviating from established custom. The religious leaders in John 9 remind me a bit of Balaam, the prophet, beating his poor donkey for seeing the angel of God blocking the road.  Now leaders in John are verbally beating on this man-born-blind, as if to extract a confession from him that Jesus is just no good.

Where there is no vision the people perish. And where there is vision that’s not from God, people also perish. There’s room for debate about what’s lawful and what’s not on the Sabbath. But one rule of thumb for wannabe optometrists is – always check your own vision first.

Rabbi Jehuda, a teacher of old, said it was lawful to anoint an eye for healing on the Sabbath. Rabbi Samuel, his contemporary, said no, it’s not lawful. Till one of his own eyes began to act up. Then Rabbi Samuel went to see Rabbi Jehuda, asking if it was alright after all, for his eye to be anointed for healing on the Sabbath. Rabbi Jehuda told him, “It is lawful – for others. But not for you!”

The work Jesus does on the Sabbath is always the work of new creation – giving the light of vision and new life and health to many… Still not everyone’s convinced… All through the gospels we see Jesus in dispute with religious leaders, whose take on Jesus is variations on ‘Even if he gives eyesight to the blind and makes the dead come alive – he’s still breaking the rules.’ (Where there is no vision the people perish… Sometimes we’d rather have the blind stay blind and the dead stay dead… than even think about changing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary…)

The man born-blind-who-now-sees is interrogated, and his testimony divides  religious leaders who question him. Some now recognize Jesus is from God. Others won’t see the obvious. Division happens, like day and night in the beginning.

Those still in the dark, next interrogate the man’s parents, who won’t answer any questions that may tend to associate them with Jesus. Jesus is turning the church and the world upside down. His followers are getting thrown out of churches. So the man’s parents will only confirm ‘yes, he’s our son; yes, he was born blind, yes, now he sees. How he sees, who did that – we have no idea. Ask him, he’s of age.’

The man is called in again, interrogated again. At first he has no clear opinion about who Jesus is. Then when Pharisees interrogate him further, he names Jesus as a prophet. Finally, in the last round of questioning, he exclaims – ‘How very weird this is getting! I was blind, now I see – and you can’t even see God working in this!”

At this point he’s excommunicated on the spot. And finally, in the next-to-last scene, the man meets up with Jesus again, who checks his spiritual vision, now asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “Who is he, sir, so I may believe?” the man replies. “You’ve seen him, and the one speaking with you is he,” Jesus says.  “Lord, I believe,” the man says, and worships Jesus. Vision check complete. (Now there really is some vision – and at least some people are not perishing.)

And again the story could stop right here. But Jesus is still speaking – now saying to anyone who can hear – “I came into this world for judgment, so those who don’t see may see – and so those who claim to see will be seen to be blind.”

Some religious leaders who overhear now say, “surely you’re not implying we’re blind?”  Jesus says “if you would admit you’re blind you’d be able to see. But since you claim to see when you don’t – you’re still blind.”

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Where there is no vision the people perish. Where the vision is not from God, the people also perish… There is a pattern…. So often we want to see only what we want to see. We don’t want to see what we don’t want to see. Our vision is impaired. We all need corrective lenses.

Where there is no vision the people perish. The prophet Balaam didn’t want to see the angel blocking the road – didn’t want to see a donkey making him look foolish. But the angel was there. The donkey – who could see clearly – was trying to save the prophet’s life. And the more Balaam got angry with his donkey,  the less he was able to see what the poor donkey was trying to show him and save him from. But the prophet could only see what he wanted to see… Thanks God for talking donkeys that sometimes keep even a blind prophet from making a real donkey out of himself… (And – )

When we’re very sure we know and absolutely positive we see – we can be pretty sure we don’t see nearly as well as we think – or understand nearly as much as we assume.

When we know we don’t see or understand it all – even our limited vision and understanding can, in fact, serve God.

When he first receives his sight, the man-once-blind understands only dimly who Jesus is. Yet he’s already witnessing, pointing to Jesus as the source of his sight and healing.

There will be times when, like the man-born-blind, we too are unsure of exactly what we believe. We’ve seen the light, but we’re still a long ways from 20-20 vision. We know Jesus is light of the world. Yet we feel unsure of some (maybe many) parts of our faith…or unable to communicate clearly about who Jesus is in our lives.

At times like this we pray (and pray persistently)… to not slip back into choosing the darkness we know… over the light that’s less familiar…thus a little frightening…

We can learn from the man-born-blind…Who, facing hostile interrogation, and at risk of isolation from family, friends and neighbors, still names Jesus a prophet. The word prophet means one who sees – one who’s vision comes from God – a seer. Jesus is a prophet, yet also much more than a prophet.

And the man-once- blind continues to grow in faith. The more pressure he comes under, the more adversity he faces, the stronger his faith becomes. Soon he’s telling his interrogators “If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do what he does.” Which gets him thrown out of the congregation – but also brings him back face-to-face with Jesus.

Hostility and testing only makes his faith grow stronger – and his vision come into clearer focus.  And as Jesus gives us vision – and as we look to him… gradually even the darkness becomes as light for us… because of his presence.

Adversity and testing of faith still comes to all – not because of our sin or our parent’s sin, not because God is punishing us. (We do manage, most of us, to bring some sufferings on ourselves –  a longer discussion for another day… )

The vision check for us today is like that of the man-born-blind… Like him, we may not always understand the gifts of faith and vision – or the trials and testings that come our way as a result – or know exactly what to do, always, with the awesome gift of spiritual sight, given by Jesus.

But when we stay in conversation with Jesus… and persist in getting to know him better… and better still…

Now even when the night is very dark… we keep looking to Jesus…

and we know, more and more, the light of his presence…

Now the more we draw close to Jesus, the more we see him drawing him closer to us…

And the more we now want to share his light, his life, his love with all.

Even as he shares his all and all with us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.