s015ag99 Somerton Park 14/3/99 Lent 4

"Now here is an astonishing thing..." John 9.30

When one reads this chapter from St John's gospel there are several astonishing things besides the actual curing of the man born blind. Astonishing and sad.

The first is the blindness of the religious authorities and the actual context of the words spoken by the now sighted man. The authorities were flummoxed, not that the man had been cured, but that Jesus had cured the man on the Sabbath. As Jesus didn't fit into their pattern of religion at all, they mentally blocked out any possibility that Jesus could be doing God's will. So they didn't believe their eyes. They couldn't see that for a man born blind, the joy of receiving his sight was everything in the world. He would have been content with this except that now the religious authorities were pestering him and saying that his healing was not God's doing.

In fact by their harsh treatment of the man, they themselves caused the once blind man to think more about the issues involved and where his own priorities lay. Jesus had sent him off to wash in the Pool of Siloam, so that by the time his sight had returned, Jesus had already moved on. Jesus therefore asked nothing of the man in return for his restored sight. The man didn't even know where Jesus was, and even if he saw him he wouldn't have recognised him - because his sight was restored when he washed in the pool of Siloam, not when he was with Jesus. It was futile even for him to seek out Jesus. But the authorities raised their own questions, and treated the man harshly when he didn't agree with them. Clearly the man was pressed by the authorities to reexamine just who this Jesus was who had cured him. From really not knowing Jesus at all, let alone where Jesus had got to, he assumes Jesus is a prophet. Later when pressed he realises that Jesus can't be sinful and that God listens to him. Finally when Jesus seeks him out and he sees Jesus for the first time, though it is the second time they had actually "met", he acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of Man, believes and worships him.

The next astonishing and sad thing is that the man is excommunicated by the authorities. The "victim" of the healing was truly innocent. He hadn't asked Jesus to be healed, he, proverbially, just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. Like most on the margins of society then as now, and officially excommunicated from Temple worship, he would probably have not known the day of his healing was a Sabbath. What would that matter to him? For someone barred from worship, the Sabbath was no different than any other day.

In fact it was the disciples of Jesus who drew his attention to the blind man with their question: "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" Jesus cured the man's blindness without even a word passing the lips of the man, without him doing anything to draw attention to himself.

So the astonishing and sad thing is that the victim of the healing, excommunicated for life from the temple because of his blindness, is pushed away from the temple by the religious authorities on the very first time he could, according to the law, come into the temple. How astonishing and sad that an innocent victim should be thus persecuted! It is here that I see the reason for Jesus apprehending the man again - not to make a convert - but to give him a home that had been denied him by the authorities.

Had the authorities determined to arrest Jesus on some charge like "indiscriminate healing" that would at least be fair; but to excommunicate his "innocent victims" is not. How often is the victim persecuted - even today - and by us in the Church?

Another astonishing and sad thing is the arguments that raged over sin. The disciples asked: "Who sinned, this man or his parents..." and the authorities said of Jesus: "We know this man is a sinner..." The astonishing and sad thing is just how frequently we mortals (especially us in the Church) talk about sin, and how little Jesus speaks about it. Jesus didn't ask the blind man to confess his sins prior to healing him, nor in fact when he met him again. Do we not get too sin orientated? Each and every Sunday we say the General Confession together and I pronounce the Absolution, before we can do anything else! (Actually I only do this early to get it out of the way). But we can easily be seduced into thinking that the only thing God is concerned about is sin. Rather I think the bulk of today's gospel reading is strongly denying this and telling us in very firm words that God is really concerned about how we get on with those God has put around us.

Preoccupation with sinfulness, specific sins, and our human frailty is indeed a human trait; yet we should not transfer this onto God's shoulders. I point out that it is the "religious" people for whom sin is so very often the issue. If we want to think about these things well and good, it's our choice. God, I'm sure, has more pleasant, even exciting, things for us.

It is astonishing and sad that these things are obvious, yet despite being so obvious we don't see them. We need to be reminded again and again of the true nature of God, "whose nature is always to have mercy". Sometimes we have to be reminded by others, as the cured blind man was called to remind the religious authorities: "If this man were not from God he couldn't do a thing."

I once heard a clergyman say that what the world needs now is a renewed realisation of its sinfulness. I am astonished and saddened at this. The world, in my view, knows only too full well its sinfulness without us getting on the bandwagon too, and dragging God and Jesus along. What the world needs, just as we ourselves need, is the light of life shining in our lives, gently yet surely casting all the darkness and fear of sin away.

We need light in the world to see properly. The most dangerous time to drive is in the half light of dusk or dawn. So too we need God's light to see properly - past sins, laws and appropriating blame - to see the good in others, and indeed the good in ourselves. Jesus is the light of the world, and his light properly does precisely as it did in his time, to lead us to see all the good around us and in us.

"Watch", those who are coming to know me, is one of my particular themes. It is the last public word of Jesus, before he retreats into the private enclave of the band of disciples and the last supper (Mat 25.13 (displaced?) // Mk 13.37 // Lk 21.34). This Lent and Paschal-tide we watch again the events of salvation - amidst the horror and inhumanity of it all - we are bidden to see God acting decisively for us and for all people. It is good news, indeed it is wonderful news, it is a delight to see that we don't have to live life worried about things we might have done in the past, how God might view what we are doing now, or how we might fail to live up to what God might want in the future. It is indeed the nature of God "to always have mercy".

As I have said before from this pulpit, if St Paul can bid us be cheerful (with "hilarity") when we are merciful (Ro 12.8) God must do this perfectly. So the mercy of God is not extended in a begrudging manner - God forever wishing we were less recalcitrant - but is extended - fully accepting of the forever continuing need for which it is God's good pleasure to supply. May our own hearts be gladdened as we see this and hear God's hilarity - we don't need to plead on bended knee - God loves to be merciful.

And of course this extends to the Cross - this is not God's final and unrepeatable remedy for human sinfulness - that we accept or perish eternally. It is the eternal expression of the tender love of God toward humanity - towards those who acknowledge the divine sovereignty and towards those who deny and run away from it.

The paradigm is clear, what passes for religion which is so often concerned with sin and keeping unworthy people away from God, is in stark contrast to Jesus who is forever concerned to approach one and all - not with a message for them to change (so that they can be accepted) - but to elicit and accept their contributions - and so magnify them.

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