Monday, 5 November 2007

Blindness and sight

I've been going through some files on my computer and found a talk I gave about a year ago on John 9. Funnily enough, Dave Bish has also been blogging a short series on this chapter too. John 9 is a chapter that I dearly love and hold close to me. I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on my talk.

It’s with some trepidation that I speak tonight on John 9, as I’ve been asked to speak on ‘encountering the blind man’. I’m scared because my most embarrassing moment in Christian ministry involved blindness. I was at another CU, a much smaller one, and I was speaking at the beginning of my talk on why it’s so great to bring a Bible to CU meetings, so you can check what the speaker is saying against the Bible. And I was saying, ‘You don’t have to have a big Bible, it only needs to be a small one.’ To which one girl shouted out, ‘No, I need a big one.’ Now I’m not very good at responding to heckling, but I said, ‘No it’s fine, bring a small one, you don’t need to show off.’ And she said, ‘No, I really do need a big Bible.’ And I said, ‘No a small one will be fine, and if you can’t see the writing, you really need some stronger glasses.’ And, you’ve probably guessed what happened: at the end of the meeting, the girl got up with a white stick tapping around. And I realised what I had done: told a girl who was 70% blind to get some stronger glasses!

Hopefully there will be no embarrassing faux pas of that nature tonight, despite the theme of the talk being blindness. Let’s dive into the passage.

An incredible healing – verses 1-7

The first thing we note from this chapter is that Jesus has incredible healing power. Let's look at the first two verses of our passage. 'As Jesus 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 work of God might be displayed in his life.'' Do you see what is going on? Jesus is walking along with his disciples and they come across a man born blind. And his disciples use it to ask Jesus a theological question. 'Was this man's blindness the result of some sin he or his parents have committed?' They want to talk about suffering in the world and ask the cause. What's gone wrong with the world, they're asking? Why is this man like this? Maybe he did something wrong or perhaps his parents sinned and he was the one who was punished.

We still sometimes hear this sort of thing in the world today. After the Asian tsunami, on Internet forums and blogs around the world, some people said that it must have particularly been people in those countries that had particularly offended God. Well, of course, Jesus has none of it. ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ says Jesus. Jesus’ words, in common with the rest of the Bible, remind us that suffering and sin are not personally correlated. It’s not that disabled people are particularly sinful, but that they suffer merely as being part of a sinful and broken world.

But then Jesus does an incredible thing. He doesn’t just give a theological answer to the disciples’ questions, but amazingly he heals the man! Did you see verses 6-7, ‘Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with his saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. ‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (which is pictured above). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.’

Now I’m not an optician, but I know that this is an incredible miracle! Can you imagine it – blind people able to see just because of a spit and mud combination! It was absolutely incredible!

And incredible as it this story is to us, it would have been even more incredible to those originally there. See a person opening the eyes of the blind was prophesied in the Old Testament, hundreds of years beforehand. See the Jewish conviction was that their God, the God of the Bible, was the one true God. So their Bible starts with Genesis: the God of the Bible is the God who created the world and all who are in the world. And being the Creator means that he is the King. In the world that he has made, God says how things should be. Only, it didn’t look like God was King. If he is King, and he is good, and all he does is right, how come things got so messed up?

So God promised, way back in the Old Testament, written hundreds of years before today’s episode, that he would deal with all of the things that were wrong, and he’d put them right. He’d set up his own kingdom, which would exist eternally and where people would live in perfect harmony with him. And one of the ways in which he’d show the coming of his kingdom was through opening the eyes of the blind. So we can read, for instance, in Isaiah 42, these words:

"I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness."

Do you see the point here? Jesus is doing exactly what had been prophesied hundreds of years earlier. Through opening the eyes of a man born blind, Jesus was showing that he had God’s authority, that he was starting to put the world right again on God’s behalf. See healing had gone on before, but none quite like this. It’s easy to be sceptical about some healings, but this was incredible – the healing of a man that had been blind from birth. The healing was a sign that Jesus was no ordinary man, but that he was God in human form, and that, through his death on the cross, he would bring in the hope of God’s new kingdom, where people could live with God forever.

I guess that on the first reading it appears that John 9 is simply about another amazing healing by Jesus - a man blind from birth is healed. And of course that would be staggering in itself; it would point to Jesus' amazing authority and power as God’s Messiah. But there is more going on in this chapter than even what we’ve seen already. Because, as we read on, Jesus himself makes it clear that this miracle is an acted parable. Just like all of the miracles in John’s Gospel, it’s a signpost to an even bigger truth. And so the given of sight to the man is a real historical event but it's also teaching us a very important spiritual truth.

Responses to Jesus healing #1: the Pharisees – verses 8-34

See the thing that Jesus is teaching us about is the way in which we respond to him as God. In this passage we see different responses.

Firstly, we see the response of the Pharisees, which is mainly recorded in verses 8-34. Because, as you probably picked up on as the passage was read, a farce ensues following the healing. The healing is so amazing that a funny chain of events happens. So we read in verses 8 and 9 that the healing is considered so amazing by some that they think the man who can now see can’t possibly be the man that was blind before! I love the slapstick element to verses 8-9: ‘His neighbours 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."’ Poor bloke, having to convince everyone that he’s just him!

But his problems have just begun, because the formerly blind man soon gets hauled up by the religious establishment – verse 13. And the reason for this is that Jesus has already had run-ins with the Pharisees. Read John 8 and you’ll see that the Pharisees were upset because Jesus called them hypocrites and said that they had to rely on him, like everyone else, for their salvation. They didn’t like Jesus’ message.

And now, in spite of the evidence, in spite of the healing of the blind man that pointed to Jesus as God and the very Saviour they claim to be waiting for, they refuse to admit that Jesus might be God. So we read verse 16: "Some of the Pharisees said, 'This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.'" Or verse 24: "A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. 'Give glory to God,' they said. 'We know this man is a sinner.'" Or verse 28: "Then they hurled insults at [the blind man] 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.'" We even get the bizarre case of the Pharisees calling the formerly-blind man’s parents to vouch that he really was born blind.

And the response at the end of it all? Verse 34 follows the man’s testimony of what had happened to him, and they say this: "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.’ They result to name calling, both against Jesus and against the blind man. They respond to the sort of prejudice we thought about at the beginning. You were shown to be a sinner by the very fact you were born blind.

Do you see what’s going on here? Why did the Pharisees respond in this way? Was it that they didn’t have enough information to know what had gone on? No – they had more than enough. Information wasn’t what they were short of! They had the man standing right in front of them, proving that Jesus was God. No, they had more than enough information. Why did they reject Jesus? Because they couldn’t cope with him. Jesus was inconvenient to them and the way they lived their lives.

As I said, you can read more about that in chapter 8. Jesus challenged all of their preconceptions. He said that they weren’t right with God just because they were Jewish. He pointed out their hypocrisy and called sin ‘sin’. Jesus got in their way.

And do you know, often people respond to Jesus in a very similar way today. Jesus doesn't fit their mould. He doesn't tick the right boxes. He doesn't say what they think he should say. See the natural human condition is that we are willingly enslaved to sin. Each of us here was the same before we became Christians. We were in slavery to sin, and chose to be like that. It was a moral choice. And I don’t know if you can remember back to before you were a Christian, well perhaps you were offended by Jesus and his message.

A similar thing happened to me last week. I’ve just started catching the train to and from Preston on Fridays – it’s a form of making me feel good and making me think I’m doing something for the environment. So instead of driving on Fridays, I catch the train. Anyway, I’ve noticed that often on the 5.35pm train from Preston, I get opportunities to speak about Jesus. So, this last Friday just gone, I sit down and the guy next to me asks where I’m going. I say, ‘Lancaster’; he says, ‘Oh, poor you, you have a horrible one way system’; I say, ‘Well, there’s worse things in the world’; He says, ‘You don’t sound from your accent that your from up here originally’; I say, ‘No, I lived in Dorset before’; He says, ‘Why did you move up’; I say, ‘Because of my job’; He says, ‘What’s that?’; I say ‘I teach the Bible to students; half of my time with Christians, and half of my time with people who aren’t Christians but who are interested in Jesus’ life and claims.’ He says, ‘Well that’s a bit like me’ – and for the next twenty minutes we talk about Jesus.

However, this is not the end of the story. We’re chatting about Jesus, and then all of a sudden, the man sitting opposite me, a scary Victor Meldrew lookalike decides to weigh into the conversation. His first comment is this: ‘Well, of course, you can’t trust the Bible as it was made up by the church in the 15th Century!’ And I say, ‘No, that’s not true, we have fragments from the NT going right back to the beginning of the 2nd Century.’ And then, a little bit later, he says, ‘Well this all seems important to you.’ I said, ‘Well it’s a matter of eternal life and eternal death how we respond to Jesus and his teaching.’ He then gets to look a little bit uncomfortable and says, ‘Well what is Jesus’ teaching?’ I say, ‘Well, he claimed to come from God and said that we have all ruled God out and need to be forgiven.’ He says, ‘What? I need to be forgiven by God?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He says, ‘What? You’re saying I need to be forgiven?!’ Slightly more angry now. I said, ‘Well, it’s not me saying it! It’s Jesus, God in human form!’ He’s now angry, ‘I don’t need to be forgiven!’ I’m still speaking nicely to him. I said, ‘I’m not saying you’re a nasty person; what I am saying is that you have ruled God out. Can you not think of any way in which you’ve ruled God out and hurt others so that you might need to be forgiven.’ By this time he’s standing up and waving his finger at me. The whole carriage has gone quiet, ‘No. I WANT TO LIVE MY LIFE MY WAY. AND I HAVE DONE NOTHING SO THAT I NEED TO BE FORGIVEN BY GOD.’ At this point, I decide to end the conversation, but unfortunately he decides to carry it on, shouting abuse at me for most of the rest of the journey home.

Now what’s gone on here? Did I say something wrong? No. Was I particularly disrespectful or not gentle? No, I don’t think so. What went on? Well, the man saw something of the gospel, and reacted to it. He wanted to live his life, and he didn’t like being told that he needed to be forgiven by God; that he was sinful. And this is a reaction we will continue to see as we tell others about Jesus; about their sin and their need to be forgiven. As Paul puts it, ‘to some our message is the stench of unbelief.’ And when this happens, it’s not necessarily because we’re doing something wrong. We always assume that it must be our evangelistic method, that we’re doing something wrong. No. It’s that people would rather keep themselves at the centre, and keep living their way, than bow the knee to Jesus. They can't cope with a Jesus who is much bigger than they thought, who challenges their preconceptions and rattles their cages. It's a very humbling experience to come face to face with Jesus and have him challenge everything we stand for and live for. It’s challenging to be told that we need to be forgiven by God. It’s challenging to be told that God is angry with us because of our rebellion. And some react angrily in response.

But that is precisely what Jesus tells us. And do you know the most tragic thing? There is none so blind as those who think they see. And that is exactly Jesus' point at the very end of the story. So, in verse 39, he says: "Jesus said, 'For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.'" Do you see what Jesus is saying? Those who think they can see, those who seek to live life their way on their terms, those who keep rejecting Jesus despite knowing the truth – they are actually the ones who are really blind.

I think this is something that we’re going to need to keep hold of this term. We live in a spiritual battle, and the main need that people have is not information, but it’s a complete change of heart. And this is something we need to remember in order to keep going. See, if I think it’s just a matter of information, then I’m going to lose heart. I’m going to have experiences like the one I had on Friday, unpleasant experiences, and think one of two things. Either, number one – the gospel message is ridiculous, or, more likely, number two – I’m not an evangelist. If I make people angry when I tell them the gospel, maybe I shouldn’t bother. That’s what I immediately thought after my train conversation. But this passage says they are spiritually blind! Even Jesus, the master evangelist, and the most gentle and respectful person who ever lived got an angry response, and so sometimes will we. But it’s because they are spiritually blind, not because we’re doing something wrong.

All this means we mustn’t play the numbers game in evangelism. I have spoken at several university missions now, and the first question people ask afterwards is ‘How successful was the mission?’ And by asking that, they’re really asking, ‘How many people became Christians?’ Now, off of the back of tonight, do you see why that’s wrong? It’s implying that if we do everything right, we can persuade people to become Christians. What’s wrong with that? They’re blind! I can’t unblind blinded eyes – that’s God’s job! So, please, let’s remember this term that successful evangelism is where the gospel is clearly presented and we’re praying for God to do his bit. If this term, the gospel is clearly presented in a faithful way, and we’re praying for God to unblind eyes, that’s successful evangelism. We do our bit, and we leave the rest to God.

Responses to Jesus healing #2: the previously-blind man – verses 35-42

The truth is that sometimes we’re scared God won’t do his bit! But, let me reassure you, God the Holy Spirit has been doing it very successfully for thousands of years and will continue to do so until Jesus returns. See, the counter to the Pharisees showing their blindness, is the previously-blind man, who receives his sight. Of course, physically he receives his sight! But, do you see, he also receives sight in another way! He comes to realise who Jesus is! Do you see the progression in how he describes Jesus? So – verse 11 – he just says ‘the man they call Jesus’; by verse 17, he calls Jesus ‘a prophet’; by verse 33, he says that he’s ‘from God’ and then in verse 38, he realises who Jesus is – the Son of Man, a human given the authority of God to rule; God himself in human form!

So it becomes quite clear that the most significant thing that happened that day was not the blind man receiving his physical sight, but the blind man receiving spiritual sight to see who Jesus is and to bow before him in worship. This man came to see who Jesus was. And in humility he bowed before Jesus and worshipped him. And that is where each one of us needs to bow if we are to receive that sight we so desperately need. Blinded by our own sinfulness and rebellion, we too were unable to know God personally until he made the first move. And he did in Jesus Christ, the light of the world. He came to give us sight, to open our eyes so we can know God personally. And until we acknowledge our sinfulness and accept his rescue of us achieved for us on the cross we will be forever blind, unable to see and know God. But bowing the knee before Jesus, as the man did? Well, that is the mark of someone who has had their eyes opened. And we can join in with John Newton’s words: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see!’

Let’s be confident. God is well able to open blind eyes. We know he is. We look around this room and there are countless testimonies of how God has given us sight as the gospel has been explained to us. That very same message that causes opposition and anger in some, like that man I met on the train, causes others to have sight. And we know that God is well able to do it. When I got home on Friday, I found myself praying for the scary shouty man. I pray that God will give him sight. Let’s have confidence in explaining the gospel this term, throughout the year and during mission week. People don’t need information, they need a miracle, but God is well able to do it! Let’s keep speaking for Jesus, let’s keep praying for God to give sight, and trust him to do the rest.


thebluefish said...

Good stuff. Mine is a broken up talk script from Royal Holloway and Falmouth... I wish I could do it again cos you have some really helpful stuff here. The OT background and ending encouragement to see our own eyes open is very helpful.

Can't match your intro!

peterdray said...

Cheers Dave :)