Sermon: Someone Walks In the Trees At Night
Scripture: John 9: 1-41
Date: September 6, 2015
I was reading an article the other day about this strange beginning to the presidential campaign and the writer made the observation that the next president will be elected by a small fraction of the American people, most of whom will be skeptical that a new president will be able to accomplish much anyway. He went on to say that the defining issue of the next Presidency may be how to stem the rising tide of skepticism that is impacting every American institution from Wall Street to Government. And I would add that that rising tide has had a major impact on faith and our faith based institutions. It’s not just that American’s don’t believe in anything anymore, that we don’t really have a moral structure, but the reality is that American’s don’t really want to believe in anything anymore. It’s almost like we are afraid to believe and we’re suspicious of those who do. And so the question that every church that seeks to have a vital, impactful ministry in this day is: How do faithful people deal with the skeptics? How do we respond to the fear of, the suspicions of, those who do not believe? Those who are intent on silencing the church and people of faith? But then as far as the church is concerned, that’s really nothing new. There have always been more skeptics than Christians. And it seems to me that’s the subplot of this story about the healing of this man. Because on one level it is the story of a miracle, but on another level it is the sad tale of those who were skeptical in the face of miracles, who don’t really want to believe. William Willimon writes this:
It is of the nature of miracle to be an intrusion, a dislocation of the expected and the explained. Rather than say, “Wow, that’s interesting!” in the face of miraculous claims, we are conditioned to say, “Let’s get all the experts together and explain what happened using the conventional, socially acceptable modes of explanation, okay?” Here was a man who was once blind. Now he can see, and nobody takes time to wonder, to give thanks, to celebrate with him.
Instead they are skeptical.
But before we are too rough on the Pharisees, or the unchurched, or the dechurched, let’s take a close look. Because in truth the skepticism begins with the Disciples themselves. They are the ones who want to turn this into a theological debate. “Why was he blind in the first place? Was it because of sin?” I think they were struggling with the idea that Jesus would just heal anybody that came along. Read between the lines and you might get the feeling that the Disciples didn’t think that the blind man was worthy of Jesus attention. Why would he worry about someone who was so engulfed by sin that he could not see? Whether it was his sin or the sin of his parents didn’t really matter as far as they were concerned. They want to take the debate beyond pure human need and interaction and talk about good and evil and worthiness. What we see is a church that has the attitude that if you want to be touched by Jesus, you must already be clean. Somehow worthy. So blind man. Why are you blind? Are you a sinner? Is your blindness a punishment from God? Why would God treat you in such a favored way as to restore your sight? Why would Jesus heal you? Are you worthy? I didn’t think so. But in telling this story, Jesus seems to leave us frequently with the underlying question of who is really blind? The one who cannot see, or the one who will not see. Sometimes we are made skeptics by what we think we know of the world and of faith, and are blinded to any other truth. Some time ago, I read the comments of a college student concerning the Department of Religious Studies at the school she attended. She wrote: They know a great deal about a great many things in religion, but none of them in the department are practitioners of any particular faith. They know everything about God, except God? Would it surprise you to know that there are a lot of people, many of them young adults like this student, who look at the church in the same way.
Human beings all too often view the church in terms of cause and effect. Because we act in this way, then God will act in this way. Our prayer life becomes a bargaining session. I heard someone say the other day that the reason that there has been such terrible drought in California is because of the way that God is treated on television and in the movies. God is angry, and so he has sent drought and fire. Now I believe that is a very real, though misplaced understanding of God that asserts that if things are bad, it’s because we have lost favor with God. And that’s the way the Disciples viewed the blind man. Surely there must be sin in this man’s life, the Disciples thought. That’s why he’s blind. You see many skeptics believe that before you can know Jesus, you must know all about Him. There must be a reason behind every miracle. Spiritual cause and effect. I read recently an account of a conversation between a recently converted Christian and an unbeliever.
“So you have converted to Christ?”, said the unbeliever.
“Yes”, said the Christian.
“Then you must know a great deal about Jesus. Tell me, what country was He born in?”
“I don’t know”, said the new Christian.
“How many sermons did He preach?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“What was his age when He died?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you certainly know very little for a man who claims to be converted to Christ?”
“You’re right”, the new Christian said, “I am ashamed at how little I know about Him. But this much I do know: three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces; they dreaded the sight of me. But now I have given up drink and we are out of debt. And my family has embraced me again.”
Hey, blind man. How did you get in such a pitiful state? Blind – begging by the gates of the city. Is it because you’re a sinner?
I don’t know anything about that. I just know that I was blind, but now I can see.
Perfection is not a prerequisite to a relationship with Jesus. When people came to Jesus for healing like this blind man did, Jesus never said, “Because you have rid yourself of all sin, you will be made whole.” No, He said, “your faith has made you whole. Now go and sin no more.” Grace always comes before salvation.
And then there were those whose skepticism was rooted in legalism. They brought the man to the Pharisees because he was dancing around, claiming that he had been healed and they didn’t know what to make of it. So, the Pharisees say, “You say this man of God healed you. But how can that be? Today is the Sabbath and it is forbidden to do such things on the Sabbath. Therefore, He can’t be from God, because He doesn’t keep God’s law. You mustn’t talk of such things.” But the formerly blind man can’t help but talk about it. In spite of the skeptics, our miraculous God will not be silenced. In a sense the law has always tried to silence faith. The Romans tried it. They killed Peter and Paul and for a time drove the church into the catacombs under the city of Rome, Christian faith was outlawed and the punishment for practicing faith was often death, but still the church grew stronger.
Hitler tried to kill all the Jews, to silence Judaism once and for all, but from the midst of the holocaust there emerged even stronger voices for God’s people and in the aftermath of the war the State of Israel was not destroyed it was restored. When the communists came to power in Russia in the early 20th century, they tried to ban Christianity but the church went underground again.and all over that vast empire house churches met and flourished. And since the Soviet Union fell, the church has reemerged stronger than ever. One of the places that Christianity is growing the fastest today is in China, where it is still illegal to worship God.
The Pharisees skepticism, though rooted in other things, was couched in the law. God’s law forbids healing on the Sabbath and so if He healed on the Sabbath, this Jesus must not be of God. Too often we, in the church, let legalism stand in the way of our faith. It is said that when John Wesley preached in 18th century Anglican churches, he did so with such exuberance and emotion that the church leaders despaired that he was possessed by the devil and so they denied him a place in the church. But Wesley refused to be silent and took to the street corners and the open fields to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The whole world is my parish he proclaimed and the Methodist movement was born. I saw a cartoon which depicted a Pastor working in His office and a man burst into his office, beaming from ear to ear and announced, “I’ve been born again! I visited my brother’s church, the Running River of Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened, and I’m born again!” To which the pastor replied, “You can’t be born again. You’re Lutheran. And you’re chairman of the Board of Trustees!” Miracles are great as long as they fit into “acceptable” , legal channels. The Pharisees say to the blind man, “This man is a sinner. He can’t heal you.”
I don’t know if He’s a sinner or not. All I know is that I was blind, but now I see.
And then, finally, the man was greeted with skepticism in his relationships. His parents were so supportive, weren’t they?. “Well, we’ll admit that he is our son, and that he has always been blind, but beyond that we don’t know anything. Go and ask him.” “Seeing” Jesus changes everything. And there will be those who will be uncomfortable with our new found faith. I remember going to my ten year high school reunion (a couple of years ago) and they gave out recognition awards. Out of the class of more than four hundred people, there were two of us who had become ministers. And we were recognized as having the most “unusual” profession. People find out that I’m a minister and they treat me differently, they act differently. They become skeptics in the midst of our relationship. William Willimon, a retired Bishop of the church, writes of a time when even he became a skeptic in the midst of relationship.
I’ve got a friend, a pastor. He told me that he had just had a very difficult experience at his church. The furnace at the parsonage had malfunctioned. One Saturday, my friend said that he woke early and tried to get out of bed. But he couldn’t get fully awake. He thought he was simply tired from the night before, so he went to sleep. He awoke later, and in a stupor, looked at the alarm clock. It was almost noon! He tried to get up out of bed. His head was throbbing, and he couldn’t move. He couldn’t get up, so he fell back in bed. At that moment, he said he saw a small child, a little girl, dressed in white. “What is a child doing in my house,” he thought to himself. The little girl gestured toward him, pointing toward the door. She said something to him like, “You must get up and get out, or you will never get out.” So he struggled out of the bed at her urging, crawled through the bedroom door and out of the house, collapsing on the front steps. The child was gone. Neighbors found him there. The fire department was called and discovered the house was full of carbon monoxide. “Now”, Willimon continues, “as I said, my friend is a pastor, a theologian. He is not given to flights of fancy. He told me, ‘I think the child in my room was an angel. I think God sent her to warn me.’ I was skeptical, but I kept it to myself. All I said was that he should be careful to whom he told the story!” And my friend looked at me and said, “I don’t know about that. All I know is, a few minutes more, and I’d have been dead.”
We are sometimes skeptical of friends and loved ones who relate such profound experiences of the presence of God. “There must be some explanation”, we say. When people are healed, when lives are spared, when souls are redeemed from the pit, we often fail to acknowledge the presence of the divine. And so often in the everyday blessings of life, we often fail to recognize the miracles that God works in our lives every day. Mike Yaconelli writes: Ours is a happy home. My children eagerly await my return home each evening. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know of Christ.
Hey blind man, your parents don’t seem to think this was God’s work. They said to ask you. I don’t know what they are thinking. All I know is that once I was blind, but now I see. God had worked a miracle in his life and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought about that. He had experienced God, and His life had been redeemed from the gutter, forever changed. I heard the great preacher Fred Craddock once say:
Some have the experience of God implanted in their hearts. Have you ever gotten up in the morning before the rest of the family, gone out on the back steps with a cup of coffee, and cupped your hands around it against the morning chill? Or late in the evening, have you ever walked down the back roads and along the rivers of your memory? What do you think about? Those are God moments. As an old African saying puts it, it is in those moments that “We know that someone walks in the trees at night.”
Because it is in those moments of everyday life, sometimes when we are most blind and life is at it’s darkest point, that the true miracles of God happen. And that miracle is the presence of God. If we look carefully at this story we see that Jesus didn’t really do anything special to restore the sight of the blind man. The miracle was His presence.
There are many who look on this Sacrament with great skepticism. Not so much the idea of the bread representing the body, and the juice the blood of Christ. But skeptical that God would love you and I so much that He would be willing to go to the Cross for us, so we could be present with Him this very day. And you know I can’t explain that kind of love. Truly I don’t understand a love like that. All I know is that He did love me that much and He still does. Once I was blind – but now I see.