Lent 4 A: The Man Who Now Sees
Dear Partner in Preaching,
A single brief question late in the week: Why do we call the main character in this story “the man born blind” or “the man who had been blind”? Maybe you don’t call it that, but that’s the way I’ve normally heard it. And I’m curious as to why.
The obvious reason, I suppose, is that this is the way the Gospel of John refers to him. At least some of the time. In the first verse of John’s ninth chapter, he is described as a “man blind from birth.” Okay, that pretty descriptively accurate.
Once Jesus heals him, he is referred to directly several more times. In v. 8, he is “the man who used to beg.” In v. 13, it’s “the man who formerly had been blind.” And in v. 17, it is simply “the blind man,” as if those questioning him refuse to accept the transformation that has occurred for him. All of these designations invite us to understand him in terms of what he used to be and, notably, in terms of his limitations. Perhaps the intention is to recognize what he has overcome. But I wonder if that roots us too quickly and firmly in the past and risks defining him in terms of previous limitations.
I wonder how often we do that in our lives as well – define ourselves in terms of limiting factors or difficult things we’ve experienced. Even if we’ve overcome them, and take a measure of pride in that, I still wonder if it does justice to our current reality or links us too strongly to the past.
When we refer to some as “divorced” or “widowed,” for instance, are we honoring a significant relationship that has ended or defining someone in terms of what they once were? Even a term like “cancer-survivor” – which I know has many positive associations for those who have endured diagnosis and treatment and come out on the other side grateful for their recovery – can, I imagine, risk defining a person in terms of what they have overcome and reducing who they are to a single dimension.
In this story, it seems like it’s just really, really hard for the people around the man who received his site – which John calls him in v. 18 – to adjust to his new reality or see him for anything more than what he used to be. And so some folks don’t recognize him at all. Others, including his parents, know what he struggled with and see his transformation but aren’t sure what to make of it.
The two exceptions to this pattern of being trapped in designations reflecting the past are, first, the man himself and, second, Jesus. The man who sees can only rejoice in his recovery and looks ahead to an open and even delightful future that probably exceeds anything he had previously imagined. How else, I wonder, could he engage the religious authorities who have intimidated others (including his parents) with such good humor: “Do you, also, want to become his disciples?” Indeed, there is a certain joyfulness to his portions of dialogue that is easy to miss if we understand him only as “the man born blind.” Consider the brave playfulness of his retorts to the authority: “I do not know if he was a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25) Or, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (30-33). He has been given an open future and nothing will deter him from seizing it.
Jesus also looks to the future rather than the past, inviting this man to faith and encouraging him by not just taking his question seriously but by revealing himself to him – indeed, the play on “you have seen him” is simultaneously poignant and joyful. All of this leads the man who now sees to make the quintessential confession in John’s Gospel: “Lord, I believe.”
Perhaps this week, Dear Partner, we have the opportunity to ask people to take stock of their past – the good, the difficult, the encouraging, the challenging – and ask what they need to let go to receive the open future God has prepared for them. What designations no longer serve? How have they understood themselves in terms of tragedy or challenge or limitation? And how might they grasp hold of the open future that Jesus’ grace and forgiveness and resurrection provide? How might the baptismal identity of “child of God” replace some of the other names we’ve been called or have accepted?
This is not at all to deny the importance of the past or some of the scars (or for that matter triumphs) we carry forward. But it is, perhaps, to remind folks that the way forward is in the future. Years ago, I a colleague with whom I worked observed that there’s probably a good reason that the windshield of a car is so big and the rearview mirror relatively small: because while it’s good to be able to glance back once in a while, the key to getting where you need to go is looking forward.
I think this story invites us to share with our folks the good news that Jesus is calling us forward. The past matters, but it is past. Jesus’ cross reminds us that the hurts, sorrows, mistakes, and regrets that have marked us may describe us, but they do not define us, for we are God’s beloved children. And Jesus’ resurrection assures us that God’s love is more powerful than our tragedies and that the future is always open.
This will be a powerful message for many, Dear Partner, as it is so easy to define ourselves as less than God calls us to be, and I am grateful for your ministry of proclamation that calls us always forward into the identity and future God is fashioning. Blessings on your proclamation.
Yours in Christ,
PS: For those interested in inviting greater participation in the sermon, this is a superb opportunity, whether by asking folks to write down something of their past they want to overcome and leaving that at the altar or font on their way out, or by passing out a card they can carry with them reminding them that they are God’s child and that the future is open. Lots of other possibilities as well that I bet many of you have already dreamt up! (Feel free to share them!)