Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Signs (6): Sight and Blindness

Psalm 146 (call to worship)

2 Kings 6:8-19 (children)
John 9 (message)
 
This is such a delightful story, and there is so much here that would deserve separate and extended consideration:


Evil
There is no direct line between “evil”, bad things that happen in life, and “evil”, doing or being sinful.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (Jesus, 9.2-3)
“You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (9.34)
We are so focused on finding fault when something bad happens. This story suggests that we should let that go.

Witnessing
Witnessing is a path to knowing God. “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 6, NIV). Don’t wait until you know everything – the man who had been blind didn’t. It’s not about what you know, it’s all about who you know – Jesus. The progress of the man’s witness:
“The man called Jesus” (9.11)
“He is a prophet” (9.17)
“His disciple” (9.27)
“From God” (9.33)
“Lord, I believe” (9.38)
You root for this guy in his interactions with the authorities, compared to the other healed man earlier in the gospel who became an informer rather than a disciple (John 5) – Jesus does not have a perfect record with his witness, even with people he heals.

Law versus Gospel
“You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses” (9.28)

Church: Whose disciples are we to be? Our mission is “to glorify God by making more disciples for Jesus Christ”. If we are disciples of one who loves, of one who sees the best in us, of one who forgives, of one whose throne is the “mercy seat” (the ark) – then we should not be too focused on undeserving, on imperfections, on guilt, on judgment.

In the story, the claim to be a disciple of Moses was a claim to be observers of the law. Unfortunately, their discipleship of Moses didn’t do Moses any favors. It missed out on the loving-kindness of God, the mercy seat upon the ark, and the promise that God – through the Word – “is near” (Deuteronomy 30.14).

Learning from sinners
We can learn something about God from sinners ... and, perhaps, must do so if we are to know God. But labeling a person a sinner (even silently) creates an immediate distance: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” (9.34) Overcoming that distance is a two-step process. First, recognize that I am a sinner, and there is no distinction, no levels of “being a sinner.” Second, recognize in the other not the presence of sin but the presence of God. We are all made “in God’s image”, and in every human being there is evidence of God’s presence, God’s love, God’s gift.

These various themes, as important as they are, are not our focus today. Today, we look at this story as the sixth “sign” in John’s gospel. And, like all the other signs before, it’s not about the sign but what it points to.

Like the 3rd, 4th, and 5th signs, this one fits within a Jewish feast and is interpreted in Jesus’ preaching. The feast for this sign is the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (7.2). And the preaching has actually preceded this sign. The sign is therefore a resounding affirmation and demonstration of what Jesus has been saying. So, some background on the celebration of the Tabernacles feast:

The feast remembers Israel’s travel through the wilderness, forty years in the desert during which God provided water, flowing from a rock, and light by night from a fiery cloud. Tabernacles, in the writings of the prophets, also anticipated the final day of the LORD, the arrival of the Messiah on a donkey, a river of life flowing from the temple or from Jerusalem itself, and the city-nation-servant of God serving as light to the world. Tabernacles was also a fall harvest festival, with prayers for rain. If it rained during Tabernacles, that was a sign of God’s pleasure and of another good growing year to come. (See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, p 326-327 and 343-344.) Water and light were a big deal at Tabernacles.

On the first night of Tabernacles, and possibly nightly, four huge golden candlesticks were erected in the “House of Water Drawing” in the court of the women at the Temple. Each candlestick had four bowls, reached only by ladders, and floating in the sixteen bowls were wicks. These were no slender wicks like a tea candle; these wicks were made from the worn undergarments of priests. And, when they were lit, it was said that all Jerusalem reflected that light (Brown, 344).

And, on each morning of the feast (and evenings come first in the Hebrew day), a procession left the temple and went down hill to the Gihon spring, the very fountain that supplied the water of the pool of Siloam. A priest filled a golden pitcher with water and the choir sang from Isaiah the prophet: “With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12.3). Then, they returned to the Temple through the House of Water Drawing and the water was poured into a silver funnel at the side of the altar, and flowed onto the ground . . . a sign of that river that makes glad the people of God (Psalm 46.4). On the final day of the feast, the procession circles the altar seven times before the water is poured out (Brown, 327).

During this feast, on the final day as the water is brought in by the procession, Jesus stands in the House of Water Drawing and makes two starting proclamations:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7.37-38).
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life (8.12).
Then, Jesus sees this blind man, cakes his eyes with spit and dirt, and sends him to wash in the very pool fed by the Gihon spring, declaring once more “I am the light of the world” (9.5).

The thing about signs is that once you see them, you see them. But looking at it doesn’t mean you see it. Ever declared that there’s no milk in the fridge only to be made a liar? Ever pulled out in front of a vehicle that wasn’t there a moment ago when you looked to your right? We say this about things we miss: “It was staring me in the face.” As in the story of Elisha and the invisible army, perception is the issue, and Jesus tackles it head-on:

I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9.39).

So, what is the point of this sign? What are we meant to see when we hear the story?

Jesus is life. It is so simple and elemental, so easy to overlook, so frequently missed. If we want to live – whether eternally or here and now – we want Jesus. And he is here.

We can be filled with life. That’s what we were made for. Rivers of living water flowing out of us. Walking in the light of life. So often, we believe the lie that we were made to be thirsty and constantly fail to satisfy our thirst no matter where we turn or what we try. So often, we buy the line that the world and our lives are a dark place and we just have to stumble around, hopefully forward every once in a while. No. Like the man who could now see, Jesus comes to us and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Despite our new sight, we’re still clueless, still not quite perceiving, but all we need to do is ask. It’s staring us in the face – all that light, all that water, all that LIFE. And, once we see it we become carriers, witnesses, with rivers of living water gushing out of us, a blazing sun lighting our pathway.

But don’t trust your eyes. They will lead us astray, particularly if – like the Pharisees in the story – we’ve been religious for a while. Trust your ears. The blind man’s journey begins when he obeys Jesus’ word to wash his eyes in the Siloam pool. He wasn’t following his eyes, but his ears, to Jesus. In the very next chapter of John, Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd and says “my sheep hear my voice” (John 10). Sheep follow Jesus by following the Word – and John introduces Jesus first and foremost as the Word (John 1). Sheep learn to see by first learning to hear. Dive into the Scripture and discover the light of life, the water of life.

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