Sunday, March 2, 2008

Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth.

Can you imagine how frustrated Samuel must have been? He had been with Saul from the beginning. He knew that a human king would do all sorts of human things. God had warned the people that the king who reigns over them would take their sons for war, their daughters as servants and their property for his own use. They wanted a king so that they could be like all the other nations, so they insisted that God give them a king. They forgot that they had a king already—the LORD was their king.

Saul was an impressive young man from a good family. Saul was the chosen one of God: Samuel knew it was true because God told him to anoint him. Saul’s anointing did not come with any celebration or preparation. Samuel ran into him one day and poured oil on his head. Could Saul possibly know what it meant? Samuel then gave Saul some very specific instructions. His prophecies came true, proving that the anointing came from God. It was not until Samuel announced Saul’s anointing that Israel knew they had a king. Some did not like the choice, but God gave Saul a victory and Saul’s kingship was confirmed.

Despite their sin in asking for a king, God promised to be with them as long as they followed Him and obeyed His commands. Human nature always fails and Saul was a very human king. Saul turned from God, disobeyed Him. 1 Samuel 15:35b says, “And the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.” At that point, God took away Saul’s anointing. Saul was given numerous chances to prove he was the type of king God anointed him to be. The day finally came when God regretted making Saul king. Saul did not turn to God when his sin was revealed, so he lost his crown and his life.

God called Samuel to go to anoint David. Unfortunately, there was still a king of Israel; a king that Samuel did not want to anoint in the first place. The people’s request for a king was an insult to Samuel and to God. Now, God was putting Samuel in the uncomfortable position of anointing a new king, thus rejecting the most powerful man in his world. It was a dangerous thing to do and Samuel was afraid. However, God gave Samuel a way out of the danger. He gave Samuel another reason to go to Bethlehem: to offer a sacrifice in the presence of the elders. While there, Samuel anointed Israel’s true king, David. He did not want to go to do this work, but he went obediently in faith that God would take care of him.

David was not even present at the sacrifice since he had been sent into the fields to keep the sheep? Though a son of Jesse, he was rejected, left to the sheep rather than welcomed at the celebration. As the youngest of such a large family he could not expect to accomplish anything of great importance. His oldest brother would receive half of his father’s estate; the other sons would split the rest. Since David was not well built, he would never have honor or glory in war. By the accident of birth, David would be nothing but a shepherd boy. Most rulers appeared taller and stronger than his subjects. A shepherd boy could not lead a nation. But God sees from a different perspective. He sees the heart. So, from this story we learn that we should not judge a book by its cover. God saw David’s heart and knew that David would serve Him.

When you study the stories of David and Saul, there is one very noticeable difference. When Saul learned that David had been anointed as king, he spent all his time and energy seeking after David. His purpose was to kill David to remove the threat to his throne. On the other hand, David seeks after one much greater—God Almighty. In his decisions, David looked to God to lead him. Even when David had the opportunity to kill Saul, he did not do so. David waited for God’s time.

Though David did seek after God, he was far from perfect. We know the story of Bathsheba, a story which shows David’s greed and selfishness. The consequences of his murder of Uriah and stealing of Bathsheba were great, however. He lost the son he was fighting for and suffered the regret of his actions. In that story we see David walking through a valley, perhaps like the one he refers to in Psalm 23.

We generally think of that valley of shadow of death literally—as the valley we pass through from this life into the next. That is why so many people choose the text to be read at funerals. In the knowledge that God walks with us as we enter into the promised land, we find hope. And yet, we walk through dark valleys all our lives. We experience times of distress when our health fails or we have financial difficulties. We walk in darkness when we suffer loss. The valley of the shadow of death might just be those last moments when we leave this world, but it might also be those times in our life when we think it would be better if we would just die. It is those times when we lose sight of our God; perhaps that is why it is so dark.

One of my favorite books is called “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” Phillip Keller, the author spent eight years as a shepherd to his own flock after living surrounded by native herders in East Africa. He understood the language of shepherding and recognized the reality of the Psalm from his own experience. He explains what David the shepherd meant when he wrote the psalm, giving us a much better understanding of David’s thoughts.

David was a shepherd and he knew what was involved with keeping a flock of sheep. They needed to be led, tended, fed, cleaned and loved. He saw the same loving care coming from His Father, the Lord God Almighty and confessed faith in the Shepherd of us all. In this short but powerful passage, David praises God for His many good works. He knew what it was like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and though he had sinned against God and man, he learned the forgiveness of God in that experience. God stayed with him through it, because David kept his eyes on God.

David was a shepherd boy when he was anointed as king over Israel. Since the ancient kings were often referred to as shepherds over their people, David was the perfect man for God to choose for the job. We have a hard time understanding because like Samuel we look for the strongest, smartest, most powerful people to be our leaders. However David understood what it took to take care of God’s sheep. He knew his responsibilities—the most important being his trust in God.

David confessed faith in God through many of the psalms, particularly the Shepherd’s Psalm. He knew God through his own experiences and saw God in the language of his life in this world. To him, the LORD was his Shepherd. Through we find immense comfort in the words of this psalm, it is not necessarily our story. How can we, who have never cared for a flock, know what it means to be cared for as a sheep? We have or own story. We can only testify about what God has done in our life. No one can tell our story and we can’t witness for others.

David became a shepherd by an accident of birth. He was the last of Jesse’s children and thus the least. He was fair and slight of build so he was sent to the fields with the sheep. He was never going to rule over Jesse’s estate or become a warrior in the army. His future was decided by his place in his father’s house until God broke into their world and anointed him as king.

The man in today’s Gospel story was born blind—yet another accident of birth. For the people in Jesus’ day, however, his blindness was not an accident. It was a punishment for some unknown sin. The disciples asked Jesus whether or not the blindness was his fault or the fault of his parents. They thought perhaps Jesus could tell them the reason for the blindness. He could, but the answer was not what they expected.

Jesus said, “Neither did this man sin, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” His blindness would be used by God as a sign of His power and His work in the world. Jesus spit on the ground and made some mud, put it on the man’s eyes and then sent him to the Pool of Siloam to wash off the mud. When his face was clean, he could see again.

We have to learn to see. When a child is born, her vision is blurry and she can only see in black and white. As time passes and her body develops, she begins to see more of the world around her. The first thing she really recognizes is her mother. Her eyes are able to focus more clearly on objects that are eight to twelve inches away. Her mother spends a great deal of time in that space, particularly during feeding, that the child learns her face better than anyone else’s. As the child grows, she begins to see more of the world and she learns to recognize the things around her. As her vision develops, her understand of her world also develops. Her sight does not improve only because of the physical development. She also learns to see.

This was never more obvious than it was in the life of a man named Michael May. Michael was just three years old when his eyes were injured in a chemical explosion. He was blind for forty three years. In March 2000, Michael May went through surgery that gave him back his sight. It was a miraculous experience for him. He was given a gift that many of us take for granted. Even if our eyesight is less than perfect, at least we have always been able to use our eyes as they were created to be used. Michael May did not have that opportunity for a long time. Meanwhile, from lack of use, the things his brain had learned as a child were lost. Even though the surgery gave him his sight, he still had to learn how to see again. His progress was tracked by doctors and they learned a great deal about visual development from his case.

He was interviewed three years after the surgery and it was interesting to see how he was doing. Despite the joy he had in finally seeing his loved ones, he still had difficulty recognizing them. He also had trouble understanding the world in which he lived. He was still using a cane like a blind man because he could not recognize the difference between a shadow and a curb. He said that his favorite sport—skiing—was actually easier when he was blind. “All of a sudden there’s all this information flying in distracting me, making me tense up. In skiing, you don’t want to do that… I was falling all over the place,” May was quoted as saying on the CBS News.

That’s what makes our story today even more miraculous. The man who met Jesus had been blind from birth. He didn’t even have the physical development of Michael May. I always heard this story like one who has had to wear a blindfold for a children’s game. We can’t see when the blindfold covers our eyes, but when the blindfold is removed we can see again. Michael May did not see so easily when his ‘blindfold’ was removed.

In this extremely long passage we hear about the experiences of the blind man after he was healed. The healing seems almost unimportant against the rest of the story. The man was interrogated over and over again. Even his parents were called in to testify to what happened to the man. At first the people who knew him thought he must be someone ‘like him.’ No one who had been born blind had ever been healed before in the history of the people. They thought he must be someone different, but he insisted that he was the man they knew.

They kept asking him, “How then were thine eyes opened?” Over and over the man described his experience. “The man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to Siloam, and wash: so I went away and washed, and I received sight.” The people began to argue over this incident. Some thought that Jesus could not be from God because He did work on the Sabbath. Others thought that Jesus could not do the work unless He was from God.

I wonder how well the man born blind could see when he washed the mud off of his eyes. He was able to get around without the help of his family – they had abandoned him. Somehow he was able to see well enough to deal with the doubt and rejection. That’s what makes this story so incredible—the healing Jesus gave to the man was something far greater than the medical community could give to Michael May. Jesus gave the blind man a whole new world and the faith to believe in Jesus. Jesus brought the man out of darkness into light.

It might seem odd that we would spend so much time talking about the interrogation, after all this is a story about a miraculous healing. The purpose of the miracles in John is that they were signs pointing to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. This interrogation is quite important. The people were expecting a Messiah. The scriptures were filled with prophecies describing the promised Savior and many people saw in Jesus the fulfillment of those prophecies. Ancient Jewish tradition also offered some expectations of what the Messiah would do when He came: He would heal a leper, cast out a demon that left its victim speechless and heal a man who was blind from birth.

Jesus was already making some claims about Himself and His relationship with the Father that upset the religious leaders of the day. If they believed what He said, then they had to believe that He came to accomplish the work of God. However, they expected that the Messiah would come to set them free from the oppression of the Romans, but Jesus was doing a different work. He had already spoken against the Jewish authorities. In the previous chapter, Jesus called them children of the devil.

This is not what they expected of the Messiah, so they were determined to prove Him to be otherwise. Unfortunately, this was truly a miraculous event. A man who had been born blind could now see. They had to find some way of disproving this event to convince the believers that Jesus was nothing but a phony or false Messiah.

The man had a story to tell and as we listen to the testimony we can see his story slowly developing. First he just told about the healing—that Jesus put mud on his eyes, he washed and he can now see. Later, the interrogators wanted to know what he thought about Jesus. First he said that Jesus was a prophet, later that he did not know whether Jesus was a sinner or not. Over and over again he kept saying, “I was blind and now I see.” This was his story.

Finally when the Jews asked him another time to tell his story, he said “I told you even now, and ye did not hear; wherefore would ye hear it again? Would ye also become his disciples?” No matter how many times the man would tell his story, they would not hear or believe. In his telling of the story, the man offered an invitation to the Jews, “Would you like to become his disciple?” Perhaps this was spoken with a hint of sarcasm, but is not the purpose of our own storytelling to give us the opportunity to invite others to become Jesus’ disciples?

They answered, “Thou art his disciple; but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God hath spoken unto Moses: but as for this man, we know not whence he is.” The man, becoming more and more confident in his own faith, told them from whence He came. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” This is an amazing statement of faith, especially since the man had not yet even met Jesus face to face. He could not have recognized Jesus in a crowded room. The Jews were upset by the man’s answer. “Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us?” They cast him out of the synagogue, but Jesus found him. “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?” The man knew he believed but did not yet know in whom he believed. “And who is he, sir, that I may believe on him?” Jesus answered, “I am he.” The man answered, “I believe” and worshipped Him.

The passages for this day help us to see the reality of God’s kingdom in this world. God is not glorified by fulfilling our expectations; He is glorified when He is revealed to the world. He shines His light through the witness of those who believe. He reveals what is hidden and we are called to bring His light to this world so that what is secret might be exposed. In seeing our own sin, we can turn to Christ for forgiveness.

Paul writes, “For ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord: walk as children of light.” We were once blind, but now we see. We don’t see by the power of our strength or courage; we see because God has revealed Himself to us in and through Jesus Christ. The light reveals the things that are hidden in our darkness—our sin, our doubts and our lack of trust in God.

It is uncomfortable having our sin revealed. How is it an act of grace and mercy? By seeing what he had done, David repented and turned to God for forgiveness—forgiveness which He received. Saul did not turn to God when his sin was revealed, so he lost his crown and his life. Paul warns us that what is hidden will be revealed, that God’s light breaks through the darkness to expose the secrets in our hearts. In Christ we are called to live in that light, not in the darkness of our sin.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees who were listening to Jesus in our story did not see their sin. They asked Him, “Are we blind?” Jesus answered, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth.” They claim to see God, to see His kingdom in this world. Yet, they were unable to see that Christ is the one for whom they were waiting. In rejecting Jesus, they stayed in the darkness that leads to death, thus remaining in their sin and rejecting the forgiveness He so freely gives to those who believe.

There comes a time in our life when we realize the things that we once loved are not always good for us. As we grow in our faith in Christ, we see that the actions and habits we thought were fun are not what God intends for our life. We see, by His Word, that the things of darkness are not fruitful and so we turn to the light. That is why we practice disciplines like we do during Lent—to grow in our faith and mature into the people God has created and saved us to be. As we pray, study, fast and worship, His light reveals the world as He sees it, so that we might repent and walk according to His ways. The darkness is revealed by the light. When we see the truth, we are set free from the darkness to live in the light.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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