I preached this sermon on March 30th, 2014 at Grace UMC as part of our Release: Finding Space for the Resurrection Lenten worship series. The text was John 9:1-41. Audio is below.
I have a little test for you. Let’s see how many of you can get this right.
This is a highly successful British commercial designed to help vehicle drivers become more aware of cyclists. The idea here is that we tend not to see what we’re not looking for. The converse is also true; we tend to see what we are looking for. Our Scripture this morning is a spiritual awareness test. Those who profess to see are blind in ways that they are unaware of. Those who are blind, through God’s help can see in ways that go far beyond mere physical sight. What you see depends on what you’re looking for.
On the surface, our Scripture is a healing story of sensory blindness. But you don’t have to read between the lines very much to realize that Jesus is talking about blindness and sight in spiritual ways. Jesus tells us that he came into the world “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” This plays out on both the physical level and the spiritual level. Things are upside-down. Sight itself is a kind of blinder.
Every year at this time, I tune in to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. I don’t watch even a second of college basketball until the tournament starts. Then I blindly declare which teams will win. I’ve only kept up with the results and watched parts of games here and there this year. There have been times in my life when I was a bit more devoted to watching the tournament. In college, I can remember cutting class to watch games on Thursday and Friday mornings during the first round of the tournament. There have been times when I’ve watched the games at work by streaming the games online and using the handy “boss” button on the website which brings up a spreadsheet to make it look like you’re working. This was before I came to Grace, of course. I’ve even won a few pools over the years. But my favorite memory of the NCAA tournament isn’t any of these things or even any spectacular comeback, upset, or buzzer-beater shot. My favorite memory was a little side wager I had with a friend of mine. This friend of mine was even more into the NCAA basketball tournament than I was. He was a roommate of mine throughout college and we participated in the same basketball pools. He is a die-hard University of Louisville fan. I remember being frustrated with him after sticking my neck out for him to get him a job at a church I worked at managing an after-school program for middle school students. After only a few weeks on the job, he didn’t show up to work one Thursday. I called him and he told me he had driven to Atlanta on a whim with some friends to watch the NCAA tournament live. This guy was seriously into the tournament. Now there are 68 teams in the men’s tournament – there used to be only 64. Sixty-four is a really good number to have a tournament with. If you’re about my age, a 64-team tournament was all you could remember at this point. Really, you want the number of teams to be easily divisible in equal ways so all the brackets turn out evenly and all teams will have to win the same amount of games to win the tournament. 4, 8, 16, 64 are all excellent numbers of teams to have a tournament with. I heard on the news one day that there were going to be 65 teams in the upcoming 2001 tournament. That seemed very strange to me. 65 teams would ruin the mathematical beauty of the tournament. When my roommate got back to our house that evening, I told him that there was going to be 65 teams in the tournament this year. It was unthinkable to him. He thought I must be either pulling his leg or woefully misinformed. He was so certain that we put a $5 wager on it. It’s good when you can bet on things that you are 100% certain of. And both of us were. Sure enough, he found out for himself and I had my tournament pool fee covered for that year. What you see depends on what you’re looking for.
Looking for Sin
In our scripture, everyone around the blind man seemed to be looking for sin. They were as sure as my roommate was about the tournament that sin was to be found somewhere. Like the number 64, sin is a really great concept for explaining lots of things…like why someone was born blind. It held certain ancient Jewish worldviews together. And so they searched high and low for the sin. They kept asking questions. Did his parents sin? Didn’t Jesus sin by healing on the Sabbath? They ask some really dumb questions – “Could the blind man have sinned causing his own blindness at birth?” Think about that for a second. Others ask the blind man, “Did you see where Jesus went?” The blind man answered rather politely, I think, saying, “I do not know,” when he might have been tempted to say, “No, I did not see where he went. I was blind, remember?” And when the answer to the question, “Where is the sin?” wasn’t obvious after all their searching, it began to divide them. But, they kept on asking and kept on looking because they just knew it was there.
My mom is a very orderly, determined, and thorough sort of person. Very little of this seems to be genetic. One day, her favorite scissors turned up missing. My mom doesn’t lose things. My sister and I tend to lose just about everything. Just this week, I left my keys in my dad’s car. And so when my mom’s favorite scissors turned up missing twenty years ago, she assumed that like everything else that turned up missing around the house, it must be the fault of either my sister or I. And so, she made us put everything else on hold and search the house high and low for the scissors. This emergency household search party wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Usually, we’d find whatever we were looking for relatively quickly and usually it turned out that my sister or I was to blame for something being out of place. But the search for these precious scissors went on and on. I didn’t know where they were. I didn’t care where they were. I just wanted to stop looking for them. We looked everywhere, but when they didn’t turn up, we had to look everywhere again. My mother knew that scissors don’t just disappear and that they had to be somewhere. She was determined to find them. My mom looked everywhere with intensity because she knew the scissors had to be somewhere.
You can imagine my delight when later that week on Sunday, my mom discovered that she had left the scissors in the Sunday School classroom that she taught in at church. I think God must have orchestrated this event just so when ever I lost something, I could remind my mom, you know, you lost something too one time, if I remember correctly. You search differently when you’re certain something is out there – like those around the blind man, you keep on looking until you find what you’re looking for. And if it is something a little less concrete than scissors, something like sin, you start pointing out those things you’ve decided must be the sin you’re looking for. The more convinced you are of your own rightness, the more susceptible you are to being judgmental. Judgmentalism always asks the question that the disciples and the Pharisees were asking, “Where is the sin?” And what you see depends on what you’re looking for. Judgmentalism is a way of seeing the world that looks primarily for where sin can be found. Usually, you don’t have to look very far. But there is another question being asked by the blind man, one that leads him on a very different kind of search. The blind man asks the question, “Where is God?” The blind man is looking for God. When asked about Jesus the first time, he says that he must be a prophet, an agent of God. In the person of Jesus, he saw God working. Scrutinized further by the Pharisees, he says, “Here is an astonishing thing!” This has never happened before in the history of the world! What further evidence do you need that this man is from God?
The blind man saw what he was looking for as well. But the search for God is very different than the search for sin. Jesus reverses things. You have to be blind to see God. You’ve got to release that which you’re so certain of. I think that’s because God grabs us when we least expect it. God likes to surprise us. In this case, he hawks a loogie mixes it with dirt and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes. I didn’t see that one coming.
Many of Jesus’s parables are about searches. The search for the lost sheep, a lost coin, a pearl of great price, or a treasure hidden in a field. Too often we think of that search as finding sinners. But we’re all sinners. What if the search is more about finding places where, as Jesus said, “God’s works might be revealed.” One of my favorite quotes from the popular book, The Shack, the character for God, called Papa, says, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it, it is my joy to cure it.” God doesn’t need help pointing out the places where sin exists. God invites us to see in such a way that we can be part of healing it. We can help reveal the work of God.
What Do You See?
The disciples and the Pharisees aren’t wrong about sin being all around. The world is a very broken place. But when we ask first, “Where is the sin?” instead of “Where is God?” We judge. And we’ll find sin – because that’s what we’re looking for. And in calling it out, or judging others, we neither redeem sin, nor do we see God. Rather, we find ourselves in a kind of hell – the place where misery, pain, and sin reside. That’s what we see all around us, because that’s what we’ve been looking for. What you see depends on what you’re looking for. But the gospel vision asks a different question, “Where is God?” God is over here in the fixing of what is broken. God is over there just waiting to forgive sins big and small. God is right there within you waiting to help make sense of what you don’t understand. God is everywhere weeping alongside pain and tragedies of all kinds. You can’t see God when you’re looking for sin. But God is there. God lives in the hearts of sinners. We see God most clearly on the cross, right between two sinners, taking on the sin of the world. If you were looking for sin, on the day Jesus was crucified, you would see it up there on the cross. On the other hand, if you were looking for God, you would see it up there on the cross. What are you looking for?