Seeing Our Blindness and Seeing Jesus
John 9:1-41, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, March 30, 2014, Lent 4
While the story of the man born blind no doubt started out as a report of an actual healing like you find in the other three gospels, by the time it developed into the story we read in John 9 it has morphed into a story about what it means to know and to believe. Of course the story operates on the literal level of physical sight, but it’s hard not to sense that John is talking about something more. He’s telling a story about getting spiritual sight for the first time. He’s telling our story as believers. When we claim to see things we never saw before, we won’t be sure what’s going on, we won’t be able to explain it to those who want to label us; it won’t fit the rules and creeds of settled religion. It will feel disorienting before we feel reoriented. But the experience we share as Christians is one of coming to see things that are invisible, of coming to the conclusion that there are unseen things more real than things you can touch and see. John’s gospel is using “seeing” as a metaphor for “believing.”
What happens when all of a sudden we are able to “see” Jesus? I don’t mean that we see him in the stained glass window or in the movie some of us saw last Monday. People think we are a fraud, just as in John’s story. Our own parents don’t know how to respond. The authorities who have turned the invisible God into a set of visible words to which you must sign your name are deeply suspicious of direct experience of God. And, honestly, when the authorities ask us what exactly happened to us, we find it hard to say. It is the newly sighted man who says “I don’t know,” while it is the “blind guides” who say “We know!”
In some ways I wonder if vision is really the right metaphor for knowing God. If we say we “see” God we may imply that we see God with precision, because at least for those of us who have sharp eyes vision is the most precise of senses. As that TV commercial says, your eye can perceive the light of a candle 146 football fields away. But seeing Jesus is not usually like that, is it? Mary Magdalene sees Jesus face to face and thinks he is the gardener. The disciples walking the road to Emmaus mistake Jesus for a stranger. Paul says about our knowledge of God “now we see through a glass darkly”—by which he meant we see a fuzzy reflection in a hammered metal mirror—but then, when Jesus comes, when the kingdom is complete, we will see God face to face. Once Bill Clinton was visited at the White House by two leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention who were there to call him to repentance on a particular social issue. Clinton talked to them about the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, and he said his favorite verse was verse 12, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly…Now I know only in part.” It’s important, he said, to remember that we do not see clearly or know fully. We are creatures and there are limits to our knowledge.
The metaphor of seeing God is traditional and useful, but I think it might be closer to our experience to say that we catch a whiff of God, that we breathe in the scent of God in the air and know a reality is there. Perhaps we could say, as the psalmist does, that we taste God. We roll that taste around the palate trying to describe it the way a connoisseur describes the flavor of a fine wine. Or perhaps tasting God is like tasting a spice we can’t quite identify or a flavor that brings back a memory. Perhaps sensing God is more like touch, being aware of a light pressure on the skin, feeling a breeze pass. For those of us who are hard of hearing it is evocative to say that we hear God just past the threshold where we can distinguish consonants. Or maybe we hear God as a still, small voice, or the sound of silence.
But for today the metaphor for perceiving God is seeing. The paradox of seeing the invisible runs through the New Testament. God is the invisible God. Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is “the conviction of things not seen” (NRSV) or “assurance about what we do not see.” 2 Corinthians 4:18 says “We do not focus on what is seen but on what is unseen” (HCSB). 1 Peter 1:8 says, “Although you do not see him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him” (NRSV).
When it comes to seeing God, we all need glasses. I have worn contacts for 30 years, but I was told I needed glasses in the 6th grade. I only put them on when I couldn’t read the blackboard. All through high school I took in the world through a slight Impressionist filter. Most of the time this was fine for a poet, but it was a problem on the ball field. I wondered why I wound up stuck in right field and often struck out, until I got my little hippie wire rim glasses after I graduated high school and discovered in college that I was a pretty decent softball player. Now, of course, I have the problem that most of you have: presbyopia. Having graduated from their seminary, I like to think that means being blind as a Presbyterian. But it just means “elder eyes.” When you get old, the doctors say, your eyes are not so much focused on the near at hand as they are focused on infinity.
None of us sees God clearly. This very book of John says famously in the first chapter, “No one has seen God,” but now he is telling a story about how Jesus the human one opens our eyes to see God when we see Jesus. Some people read this story to mean that we Christians are the sighted ones while the Jews are spiritually blind. That is wrong on many levels. In fact, a more fruitful way to read the story might be to say that those who think they know all about God are the blind ones, and the ones who can’t say who touched them are the ones who see.
Once the man born blind is given his sight, people start interrogating him. “How were your eyes opened?” He responds with a “just the facts, Ma’am” account of having mud put on his eye, but he really has no idea how his eyes were opened, how he came to see. The authorities ask, “Where is he?” and the newly sighted man says, “I don’t know.” They ask “What do you say about him?” and he answers that he supposes Jesus is a prophet, which is of course not quite right; it’s the answer the Samaritan woman gave last week. Once more the authorities confront the man who has received sight and say, “We know he is a sinner,” and the man replies, “I don’t know if he is a sinner. There is one thing I do know: I once was blind but now I see.” He finally loses his cool and tells the Pharisees off. This much he has concluded: whoever touched him must be from God. The sanctimonious ones yell at him, in The Living Bible of 1971, “You illegitimate bastard!”
Where this is all going is to make the point that the one everybody calls the blind man can actually see the truth, while those who think they see are blind to the truth of who Jesus is. The religious authorities have learned to read rules and to see categories of people, but they are not adept at perceiving the things of the Spirit. They cannot see who Jesus is. The “moral” of the story comes in verse 39. Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment,” just as in John 3 he says that his coming into the world creates a crisis; how someone responds to God’s making himself visible in Jesus is the judgment. In verse 39 he goes on, “I came so that those who do not see might be able to see, but I also came so that those who think they see might be exposed as blind.” The real blind men in this story are the religious people who are sure they have all the answers, and the only one who actually sees Jesus is the one who accepted the fact that he could not see at all.
Here’s what I take home from this story: We don’t see Jesus until we know we don’t see. As long as we think we have a clear grasp on reality, as long as we think that what you see is what you get, we are blind to the spiritual. We can’t believe until we accept that we don’t know everything, until we accept that some real things are invisible.
Jimmy Allen was a Texas Baptist preacher who led the losing battle against fundamentalists and led in the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He also had a son with AIDS in the 80s and wrote about the terrible lack of acceptance their family found in churches at the time. I loved what he had to say about knowing God: “I don’t know nearly as much about God as I did when I left seminary, but what I have learned about God is so real that it will take your breath away.” I could say the same thing for myself: “I don’t know nearly as much about God as I did when I left seminary, but what I have learned about God is so real that it will take your breath away.” Jimmy Allen goes on: “Sometimes we learn about God only through going through something that takes life out of the safe and comfortable and into the unknown and challenging.”
If you come to church thinking you know all you need to know about God, you will not see him. You will not even come to understand what it means to believe in him. The beginning of wisdom is knowing that we don’t even know enough to know how much we don’t know. God is giving us his light; Jesus is the light of life shining in the darkness, John says. But we cannot see that light in the darkness if we think we already see. If we open the Bible thinking we already know what it says, it cannot speak to us. If you listen to the sermon confident that all you will hear are my prejudices and opinions, or the things you have known all your life, then God cannot speak to you.
I had a deacon in New Jersey who studied tracking—down in the Pine Barrens with a Native American guide named Tom Brown Jr. I remember him telling me that the test for one of the classes was to be left in the wilderness blindfolded, testing your ability to track without using your physical eyes. You used your ears and your hands and feet and your nose to find your way around. That completely blew my mind. It made me wonder if something occult was going on, but I don’t think so. It’s just that there is more than one way of seeing. We have to stop depending on our proud ability to see with our eyes to begin to see the things of the Spirit.
Jacques Lusseyran was a blind Resistance fighter in France during World War II who when captured helped his fellow POWs keep their morale and survive. He was blinded in a school accident when he was 8, but his parents never made him feel sorry for himself but educated him to function in the seeing world. Barely ten days after his accident he made a discovery that entranced him for the rest of his life. “The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,” he wrote. “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.”
Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.
This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves (Against the Pollution of the I, quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Light without sight,” Christian Century March 24, 2014).
I have no idea what that experience is like, but I am confident of this: there is a sight beyond the sight of the eyes. The way the great majority of us see God is with the eyes of faith. We say “seeing is believing,” but the opposite is true: “believing is seeing.” The witness of every person who has had the eye-opening experience of meeting God in a personal way—however subtly, however quietly, however internally—is the testimony of the man born blind: “I once was blind but now I see.” I now perceive realities that I had no idea existed.
Nowadays that line is familiar to us from the hymn Amazing Grace written by John Newton. John grew up as a little Anglican, but his mother died when he was 11 and he went sailing with his sea-captain father. As Block Islanders will know, that was a tough life in which he learned to swear like a sailor and drink with the worst of them. His father captained ships that carried Africans as cargo to England and to America, although he never traded in slaves himself. John Newton was impressed into the Navy but was discharged dishonorably for insubordination. He then became a slave trader and made his living buying and selling men, women, and children. Once his ship almost sank and he called out to God for help. It was the first prayer he had uttered in many years, and when he got home he began to read the Bible and very slowly the light of Christ dawned on him. And when he began to understand the reality of God’s love for him, he could not avoid the reality of God’s love for Africans and the monstrousness of his sin. Eventually he became one of the most influential pastors in London and—as the movie Amazing Grace shows—was the spiritual mentor of William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament who after decades of trying abolished the slave trade in England.
When God’s grace opened the eyes of John Newton to his own sin and the reality of God’s love, God used it to open the eyes of a nation to its own sin. When God opens our eyes to the reality of his love and beauty, we become aware of the ugliness of our sin—and of the sin of our culture, our nation, and our island. But to all who are humble enough to know that they do not see, Jesus offers mud and spittle; he offers to use the simplest things to help us to see him and experience the grace which can transform us and then our world.
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Block Island, RI 02807