Another sermon about the cross. This one presents a little different aspect of the cross: a glimpse into the mechanics of how the cross presses down on Christians — and the blessings that come afterward. A few things to note as you read through the text and the sermon: 1) the irrational rage of the Pharisees, which only grows as they’re frustrated in their attempts to silence the man and get at Christ, 2) the reward that the man born blind receives when he doesn’t back off of his confession — he receives Jesus as his very own, fully and completely.
This text is excerpted from John chapter 9. If you really want to see the whole picture, read all of John 9 (and it wouldn’t hurt to read a few chapters before and after as well.) The account had to be truncated for a manageable use in church, but many of the details of the back and forth among all the parties involved are fascinating — and downright entertaining, too.
After a while, you come to admire this man who was born blind. He courageously, courteously, and honestly confesses his faith. He speaks up for Christ in the face of the Pharisees’ blind rage, and he finds out one of the secrets concealed in the dear cross: when you’re thrown out by the Pharisees, you don’t really need them anyway. You can get along just fine without the approval of blind, warped, and self-condemned men when you have Christ. This text is also valuable for showing the process that Pharisees, even modern-day ones, often employ against the followers of Christ. They still follow the same patterns of behavior even today. I touch on that at length in the sermon.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the rejection that comes with the cross, but I have, and I wrote this sermon for all those who have felt the cross’s slivers, and those who have yet to feel them. When you suffer unjustly for your faith, that’s Jesus’ loving way of revealing to you how much He really means to you and you never even knew it. Coming through such trials strengthens you and makes you into the person God wants you to be. It hurts at the time, but later on you can honestly say, “This has produced a harvest of righteousness in my life. Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.”
I’m continually surprised that the cross isn’t a frequent topic in more sermons, but maybe I shouldn’t be. The cross is an inherently unpopular topic, either to discuss or to experience. The flesh shies away from the cross and shirks it energetically. Yet it is an indispensable — indeed, foundational — part of the Christian life, and as such, I’ve resolved to make full mention of it when my sermon texts call for it. People will experience the cross, if they’re true Christians, and I want to prepare them for when it comes to them, because it’s going to hurt and it will be bewildering. They need to remember what God is accomplishing through their suffering that they don’t deserve that comes because of His name.
Sometimes an individual Christian will wonder if he confessed his faith fully or clearly enough when called upon to do so. He may wonder if he compromised at all, if he should have said something he didn’t, or if he shouldn’t have said something he didn’t say. He knows he confessed his faith, but the nagging question is: Did I say enough? Did I do enough in defense of the truth? There was more I could have done… This text provides a wonderful antidote for such fruitless fretting. After he’s thrown out by the Pharisees, the man who was blind is found by Jesus. Jesus goes looking for him, reassures him, gives him the surety he was seeking. He does the same thing for us. He still comes to us in His Word and through His Sacrament, and He absolves us of all uncertainty and all doubt, forgiving us of any fault of our flesh may have been admixed in our confession. Such consolation is very sweet and needed, because all other false supports and props (e.g. the companionship and human support of the Pharisees) have been kicked away, stripped away, and the faithful confessor finds himself very much alone. Then Jesus becomes everything to you, as He was all along and as you realized when you lost real, valuable things in this world for His dear sake.
May the God who gives light enlighten your heart as you trust in Him. Jesus bless your Lententide devotions, dear friends. Amen.
1 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 work of God might be displayed in his life. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work 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.” 6 Having said 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. … 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.”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 do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided. 17 Finally 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.”… 34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. 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.” (john 9:1-7,13-17,34-39 niv)
We don’t always think about our eyes all that much – until we get something in one of them. Then you can’t think about anything else until you get it out. Funny how something as small as a speck of dirt that you can’t hardly see can take up all your attention and energy when it’s lodged up under your eyelid. There’s nothing like that feeling of alarm and emergency you get when you’ve got something in your eye and it won’t come out. In our gospel for today we meet a man who had mud rubbed in his eyes. It didn’t really bother him – he couldn’t see in the first place. It actually helped him, because along with His Word it was part of the means Christ used to cure his blindness. As we see what happens afterward, we’ll be led to ponder True Blindness and True Sight.
Jesus is leaving the temple area with His disciples, and they walk past a blind man. Nothing unusual with that – blind and crippled people were everywhere, on street corners, in alleys, begging for food or money. With no welfare agencies or government bureaus, people either took care of their own or they begged. This man probably called out whenever he heard footsteps nearby – “Please help me, I’ve been blind since birth, I can’t work, please help!” This presents the disciples with a perplexing theological problem. Is this man punished for his sin? He was born blind, so how he could be punished for sins he hadn’t committed yet? Maybe his parents sinned. But don’t the prophets say that the son is not punished for the father, but rather each is punished for his own sins? Why is this man blind? Where’s the sin?
Because somebody had to sin if this man is blind. The disciples make a common assumption that we make at times: if somebody has something bad happen to them, they had it coming. They did something that God didn’t like, so God is getting them now. Job’s friends assumed the same thing about him. Sometimes we think the same thing about ourselves, that God is getting us for something we’ve done against him. Jesus’ answer is wonderful, because it opens up whole new realms that the disciples hadn’t even considered. The man’s blindness was due to sin, but only in a general way. There was no specific sin either by the man or his parents that he was being punished for. God allowed him to be blind from birth for an entirely different reason: so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. God’s purposes are often bigger and deeper and more mysterious than we can comprehend. A lot of what God accomplishes is hidden from us. We see only a little bit of what God does, and we understand even less. But whatever God does, we know it’s for our good, even if we don’t understand it at the time. Sometimes God even lets us see Him in action.
So after Jesus declares that night is coming, when no man can work, and that He is the light of the world, He spits on the ground and makes some mud. Then He rubs it on the man’s eyes. By this He was teaching us that we need to have both right knowledge of what God teaches and good works. We need to know true doctrine, but just knowing isn’t good enough if we don’t have good works to go with it. Likewise, if we have good deeds but we don’t have a true knowledge of Jesus, our good deeds aren’t enough. You need both. Too many people these days have only one or the other and think that that’s fine. God keep us from thinking that one or the other is good enough on its own.
So Jesus rubs the mud into the man’s lifeless eyes, then tells him to go wash at the Pool of Siloam. Ordinarily this would have been less than useless. Mud made from spit doesn’t cure blindness, especially not blindness you were born with. Sometimes if a kid hurts himself sliding into third or falling out of a tree, his friends will helpfully tell him, “Rub some dirt on it, let’s go.” That’s basically what Jesus does here. Why does this work?
Two reasons: the Word and faith. Jesus tells the man to go and wash, and not just wash anywhere, but at the Pool of Siloam. Those words are an implicit promise: wash and you’ll see. Jesus’ Word is always powerful. It gives what it promises and it accomplishes what it says. Even though Jesus’ Word always does what it says, the man still could have prevented Jesus from giving him sight by not going to that pool. He could have gone somewhere else, or he could have just told himself, “This is foolish,” and scraped the mud off himself. He could have tried to argue with Jesus or gotten upset, like Naaman the Syrian did when the prophet Elijah told him to go wash seven times in the Jordan River to be cured of his leprosy. This man doesn’t do that. He goes and he washes in the pool of Siloam. He trusts that Jesus’ promises are true and that he will get to see.
So he goes and he splashes the water on his face, and as the water and mud run down his face, he opens his eyes and he can see light. He can make out colors and blurry shapes. He splashes more water, faster, and as the mud washes away the sights get clearer. It’s true; he really can see! Colors and shapes flood into his eyes and he is seeing for the first time in his life!
Jesus has done something similar for us. He didn’t make mud from spit and put it on our physical eyes and tell us to wash it off with mere water. He applied water with His Word to our blind hearts, and He has removed our true blindness – the blindness of our sinful nature that refuses to know God. He has caused His light to shine in our hearts, so that now we know God, really know Him, know Him as our loving Father and Creator, and we trust in Him. He has led us to see Him as the Light of the world, to see His sacrifice for us on the cross and to understand what it really means – that all our sins are forgiven, that we are at peace with God and pure, that God’s mighty right arm has worked salvation for Him and we are saved. We had as little to do with our salvation as that man blind from birth did with Jesus’ giving him sight. We simply receive Jesus’ salvation. He does it all, just like He’s the one who made the mud and put it on the man’s eyes and told him to wash. It’s because of Jesus that we are not wandering around in the darkness like blind men anymore. We have been given the light of Christ.
That makes us different now. The blind sinners around us can’t always say why we’re different, but they know that we are. They can tell by what we say and what we do. They can sense that in Christ’s light we see light, and a lot of times they fear the light. “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” So sometimes we get treated like this man once blind does here.
He’s brought before a group of Pharisees who, like Pharisees do, are trying to find out what’s going on with someone else’s business. Not only is there the healing, which is pretty hard to explain, but also the fact that Jesus made the mud and healed the man on the Sabbath. Making mud was work. Healing was work. Jesus broke the Pharisees’ rules when He gave this man his sight. Jesus didn’t break God’s Sabbath – Scripture shows us that Jesus attended worship in God’s house faithfully and always honored God’s Word, which is what the Third Commandment is really about. He broke the extra rules the Pharisees made up about the Sabbath. That’s what’s so troubling to these Pharisees.
Now see what following man-made rules instead of God’s Word does to people. These Pharisees are unable to come to grips with what Jesus has done. The facts are right in front of them, and the more they look at the case, the less it makes sense. Their thoughts are confused. It’s like they’re wandering around in a fog. If you read through all of John chapter 9, you’ll notice that the Pharisees almost act like they have a mental block. They can’t deal with the simple fact of what Jesus has done. That’s what happens when a group of people exalts their own thoughts and ideas and rules above God’s Word. When people reject Jesus and His Word and cling on to their own wishes and ideas, that’s when true blindness sets in. The blindness that rules their hearts gets ahold of them as a group and it can come out in the way that group can treat individual Christians. These Pharisees almost act like a mob here. They grow increasingly enraged and abusive toward this poor man whose eyes Jesus opened. This man basically ends up declaring his faith in Jesus, and the Pharisees in their blindness take it to the next logical step: they kick him out. They throw him out on the street.
The same thing can happen to us when we testify to what God has done. We too can be rejected, shunned, expelled because we won’t surrender anything of what God has told us. Sometimes our clearly confessing Jesus costs us relationships, or it damages those relationships to the point where they’re never the same again. Sometimes valuing the things of God can cost us things that the world values. It may not happen every time, but it very well could come to each of us when we choose to honor the Word of God over the words and ideas of men. Another name for that is the Christian cross. Sometimes unbelieving people take it out on us if we won’t back off of our faith.
If you’ve felt what I’m talking about, remember what Jesus does next. He goes looking for the man He healed. He goes looking for him. He searches for him until He finds him. Jesus doesn’t give us sight, bring us to God, enlighten us and call us by the Holy Spirit, and then slap us on the back and say, “Okay, you’re on your own now, good luck!” When we are rejected by the truly blind, we are found by Jesus. He comes to us and He reveals Himself to us the way He revealed Himself to the man he helped: as our Savior, as our Friend, as our Guide, our Helper, our Defender. It’s at those times, when the world rejects us and we feel most alone, that Jesus becomes everything to us. Then we see most clearly how sufficient His grace is for us. He is our all in all. Without Him, we are nothing. With Him, we have everything, even if we have nothing. The man born blind’s confession becomes ours: “Lord, I believe – not my parents or my family or my friends, but I believe that You are the Son of God and my Savior.” God grant that each of us may say with our words and our actions, “Lord, I believe,” and may the God who said, “Let there be light” and who gives sight to the eyes, so enlighten and strengthen you that you are never false to Him; may He grant you true sight. Amen.