One Way? Week Five: "I Can See Clearly Now"
Several years ago my wife decided to change her hair color from very blonde to very brown--while I was away at a week-long conference. We had been married for ten years at that point, and I had known her since we were thirteen. For every one of those twenty-odd years her hair had been very blonde. Until that week.
When I got off of the airplane and began walking to baggage claim, I walked right past the seat where she was sitting, and even glanced at her as I went. A thought passed through my head when I glanced, "She's kind of cute," it called out as it passed. Then another thought came rushing in and sort of shouted when it arrived, "THAT WAS YOUR WIFE!!!!"
I stopped in my tracks and turned slowly around. Sure enough, there she was smiling at me, resplendent as a brunette. I gave her a big hug and exclaimed about how different she looked with her new color. Then I made the mistake of telling her about the "She's kind of cute" thought, thinking in my sort of two dimensional male thinking that it would be a complement to her. "So, you thought I was someone else and that I was CUTE?" she demanded I answer. I had nothing but something like this... "You hungry? I'm hungry. Really hungry. All I had was peanuts. Want to get something to eat?"
Here's the problem. I had seen her, but I hadn't really seen her, if you know what I mean. I had been used to seeing her a certain way, and then suddenly that certain way was turned upside down. I walked right by the woman I love, the girl of my dreams--sure I thought she was cute, but I still kept walking.
There's those kinds of moments when you see, but don't really see... and then there are moments like this:
You find the perfect man or the perfect woman---you start dating. Things don't end well. Maybe they develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol--or maybe they develop an addiction to infidelity. Or maybe they are just plain evil. And later on when your heart is lying on the floor, accompanied by your self-esteem, and maybe even your finances, health or physical well-being you ask something like, "How could I have not seen that coming?"
Or you make an investment, or change jobs, or a hundred other things that have to do with your career, money, future, you name it. And it all falls apart. It wasn't what you thought. The new boss is terrible, the investment fails... And you find yourself asking something like, "How could I have not seen how that would turn out?"
So how do we develop vision to see the world differently? To not miss the important things---the clues to a better life, a better way of being and finding who we really are in the world?
Sometimes in order to see things as they really are, you need to change the lens you're looking through. For anyone who wears glasses, you know what I am talking about here---but it goes even deeper. Indulge me.
I read once that when Columbus came to the New World the Native Americans on the islands where they landed could not see the ships that were anchored off the coast. Their minds could not conceive of such a thing, so it refused to see it. They could see the Europeans in small boats coming ashore, but not the ships. Finally a very wise old man from the island sat for hours staring at the ships trying to see them. At last he began to see their shapes, and then the detail. When he was able to see them, he could describe them and then the others could see them, too.
For some of us, we have never seen the world as it should be---ourselves as we ought to be. We can't conceive that it can be better than it is. We hear stories of people living incredible lives of purpose and meaning, but we figure those stories are for other people, not us.
This week we are going to be studying a story that is all about seeing, but not in the ways that you would expect. In fact, what I want us to focus on as we study is this one pretty big idea: Jesus is the One Way to God that helps you to see like you've never seen before.
Let's read John 9:1-41:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”To begin with, we need to understand that this passage isn't about a miracle, it's about a sign---or more specifically a semeion, which is a Greek word for sign that actually is closer to "holy vision." A sign in John's Gospel has the potential to change the way we see the world, ourselves and others. But not everyone sees the signs the same way as we will discover.
This whole thing starts with some bad theology. The disciples ask what seems like a really dumb question, "...who sinned this man or his parents that he was born this way?" We see those words, and we think, "Wow! Those guys sure were backward!" But we do the same kind of thing, don't we? I can't tell you how many people I meet who say, "I've been a good person, I don't know why this bad thing happened to me." Some people believe that the bad things that happen to them in life are the result of punishment for something they've done.
This sign is one of those moments when God's truth and the world's life collide. God doesn't cause all things, but God is present in all things.
But the bad theology of the disciples does give us some insight into how the blind man is seen by his community. He's cursed. He's a scapegoat, of sorts. His neighbors, his family, his religious leaders all use him as a symbol of their own rightness. "Well, I may not be everything I am supposed to be, but at least I am not as cursed as that guy." Blind people in the ancient world could only make their living by begging, and the best begging happened near the Temple, especially on the Sabbath.
6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.So Jesus takes spit and mud, smears it on the guys eyes, and then tells him to go wash it off in one of the public springs, which was made into a pool for ritual washing, obtaining drinking water and the like. This is straight up weird. But in the ancient world there were lots of stories about how clay and spittle had healing properties and were used to heal people of various maladies. In Judaism, however, that kind of thing was considered vulgar and gross. It's like Jesus is literally taking everything that his disciples know about how the world is supposed to work, and turns it upside down. In the kingdom of God, even the most mundane things are redeemed, and special and used by God.
8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.” 10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked. 11 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.” 12 “Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 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.”Interestingly, after the man is healed he's seen differently by everyone. Remember how we described him before--cursed, a scapegoat? Now that he's released from all of that, his community has no idea what to do with him. He doesn't fit their categories any longer and it upsets them.
16 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. 17 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.” 18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” 20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 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.” 22 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. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”Not only does this man's community fail him after his healing, his family lets him down as well. His parents are more afraid of what the Jewish leaders can do to them than they are of lying. Being cast out of the synagogue would be devastating. They would be restricted in commerce, in relationships---it was a rare and terrible punishment.
24 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.” 25 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!” 26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 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?” 28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.The religious leaders fail this man as well. They are frightened by his claims, and even more frightened that Jesus might increase in popularity. They want to control the story. In their story Jesus is a sinner, a villain and not a hero. They keep focusing on the fact that he healed on the Sabbath as evidence of his villainy. But the man born blind doesn't give to figs about Sabbath rules at this point. He just knows that he was blind and now he's not. The Jewish leaders finally instruct him, "Give glory to God..." which was a way of saying, "Raise your left hand and put your right hand on the Bible and now solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth..." And so the guy does. Only when he tells his truth they throw him out of the synagogue.
35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” 40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” 41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.This guy receives his sight while everyone else in the story loses theirs. It's a world turned upside down. And Jesus makes it even more hard to hear because he hits the religious people with one last jab by telling them that giving lip service to God doesn't mean that their eyes are opened.
There are some big issues in this story that we can't ignore. First there is the whole idea of limited sight---and the movement from darkness to light. In the story the man born blind is the only one who has the courage to squint into the light of the world and truly see. No one else seems willing or able to do this. In John's Gospel moving from darkness to light is a sign of belief. Are we willing to raise our eyes to see beyond the few feet in front of us---to see beyond our own pride, our fears, our doubts and gaze upon the light of the world?
The second big issue has to do with the way the Pharisees and Jewish leaders sit around arguing about sin ---and they completely miss the grace of God in their midst. The Pharisees claimed to have a corner on the market when it came to grace, but it's Jesus that actually heals. There's a lesson in there for all of us church-y people who think we have it all figured out. We don't, not really.
Then finally there's the biggest idea of all: Blindness in this story isn't about "seeing" it's about recognition. The man born blind hears Jesus, obeys him and then sees and believes in him. He didn't know everything about Jesus--he just knew what Jesus had done for him. "I used to see the world that way," he essentially says, "Now I see the world this way." That moment of recognition changes everything for him. He sees like he's never seen before.
Years ago, I led a mission trip to a village in Mexico just outside of Tijuana. It was a hard, draining trip to lead, and one that required our team to humble ourselves in ways that we never dreamed possible. We lived in the village with families who would give up rooms in their homes to house us. Women from the community cooked for us each day--morning, noon and night. Our teams worked long hours each day repairing roofs, working with children and often experiencing some of the worst poverty and living conditions that we had ever seen. Every single day we took in more beauty and horror than we could process. And then we came home.
When I arrived home to my downtown Chicago townhouse, it was empty. My wife and children were returning from Florida and wouldn't be home until the next day. I remember thinking that all I wanted more than anything in the world was to sit in my steam shower for an hour to clean the dirt from me--dirt that I hadn't been able to get rid of no matter how hard I tried.
As I sat there in that shower surrounded by steam, with a river of red clay running down the drain beneath my feet, I began to sob. I cried until I thought I couldn't cry any more. I had seen the face of Christ in the poor of that village, had been fed by the hands of Christ each day, experienced the love of Christ in the open arms of the families that hosted us so we could come and make just a tiny difference in their village in Jesus' name.
My eyes had been opened in ways that I could never imagine. I used to see the world that way and now I see the world this way... I thought that I had the answers, the power, the Gospel... I thought I was soooo religious.
And then I encountered people who had the kind of faith that can move mountains--one shovel full at a time.
I've never been the same since. It's one of the many reasons why I am a pastor today. When you have those spit and red-clay moments in your life you never forget it. And this is why I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the One Way to God that helps you see like you've never seen before...