SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
2nd March 2008
1 Sam. 16.1-13Ps. 23
When John was telling the Jesus story he was doing so some five or six decades after the events. He told the story, as did Matthew, Mark and Luke, to ensure that his faith-community stayed anchored in the actualities of the Jesus event and Jesus’ teachings, rather than redefining the Way of Jesus along lines that suited them. He told the story, too, to ensure that the event of the Incarnation continued to speak to a later generation. He had no doubt that this telling was a critical and urgent work of the Spirit – and that those who heard what Jesus was saying to them would be embraced and strengthened by the Spirit of God.
The Fourth gospel (like the other three) is intentionally addressing two situations. As it happens, in the purposes of God, it addresses a third, unforeseen by John: that of Whangarei in the twenty first century. John the story-teller is aware both of the tension between Jesus and authorities of Jerusalem and the tension between the Jewish and Christian communities where John was living five decades later. The unfortunate phrase ‘fear of the Jews’ is intended to represent fear of all corrupt authorities; the unfortunate shorthand that has so tragically dogged Christian history came about because it was to the Jewish community that John’s people were primarily exposed, but it was designed to designate any anti-Christ community.
John had no doubt that the same Spirit of God was able to achieve God’s intentions in each context. At the time of writing the Jewish authorities had finally expelled the Christian believers from the synagogues, and the Christians were experiencing all the bewilderment and disillusionment that this entailed: who were they and how were they to operate as God’s end time people if they were rejected and exposed in this way? Unbeknown to them Paul’s audiences had faced similar issues half a generation earlier, but John’s community was cut off from those of Paul’s world, and he knew nothing of this.
The blind man is physically blind, but there is much more than mere physicality going on here. What we see is a role reversal, in which the physically blind become increasingly sighted, and the physically sighted oppressors, oppressing a human being in the name of religion, become increasingly blind.
This is a story of the Spirit, the Comforter, who works in and through the encounter between the un-named blind man and the corrupt religious authorities. The man has never asked to encounter Jesus or to be dragged into a confrontation with the authorities, but he gradually grows into the role that Jesus places on his shoulders. Elsewhere Paul writes to the Corinthians in a similar vein: No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
The western Christian community is engaged in a time of trial. Headlines that probably embarrassed Sir Richard Branson, but which nevertheless proclaim him to be what the Beatles never were, remind us that we and our story of resurrection hope, judgement and justice are being sidelined. It is possible, eventually, that worse may lie ahead. But the road we face is nowhere near as cataclysmic as that faced by the community for which John was writing. Yet he reassured them, in the telling of the story of a once-blind man, that Jesus does nurture his faithful through times of trial. Empowered by the Spirit the weak overcomes the machinations of the strong and the blind overcomes the disempowerment of darkness. And the story offers a further hope that has inspired Christians through the centuries since: the corrupt authorities who dare to judge eventually betray themselves into a place of judgment – by a greater judge.
In the end this is a story about many things. It is a story about healing and about hope, about corruption and redemption. It is a story too about sin. Sin that not the ‘naughty things that we do or think about after breakfast’, but sin that is a crippling human and societal state. Sin in this story from the life of Jesus is theological state not a moral category. The Pharisees who are sighted are trapped in endemic, constitutional sin, and do not see. The blind man sees all along from the moment he is first touched by Jesus. Sin is wrong-response to Jesus, ignoring the finger of demand that God places on our lives, as seen in the blindness of the Pharisees. Sin is mis-prioritization of gospel demand, which is, primarily in John’s gospel, to ‘witness to the light.’ The once blind man does that despite life threatening opposition. Sin is not ‘naughty things’ but a mis-focussed state. Salvation is the embrace of Jesus and the re-orientation he demands.
In the ancient church the story was a part of the Lenten preparation of the catechumens, representing the journey from darkness to light. May it be our journey too.
 Did I mention at the end of the previous post that there is much that church leaders and gatekeepers might learn from this?