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Sermon – “Who Sinned?” – March 30, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Who Sinned?

Psalm 23; John 9: 1-41

Hereʼs the crux of the ninth chapter of Johnʼs gospel. A man born blind sees, and recognizes that Jesus is Sent from God. The witnesses from the prevailing religious establishment–here referred to as Pharisees, as often the case in the other gospels, and also as “Jews,” more typically a name given Jesusʼ opponents in Johnʼs gospel–fail to recognize the healing as a sign that Jesus has been Sent by God, and so are blind. In fact, Jesus responds to their question at the end of the story by saying, “If you were blind you would not have sin. But now that you say,ʼWe see,ʼ your sin remains.”

The assignment of sin at the end of the story completes a theme introduced almost immediately. Verse two gives the reaction of the disciples to the man born blind they all encounter. They ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesusʼ response at that point is worth considering. What Jesus says is, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind that Godʼs works might be revealed in him.” Before anyone resentfully asks if God creates problems just to provide an opportunity for divine rescue, the way it seems Jesus permits Lazarus to die so that the sign involving Lazarus can be upgraded from a cure to a resurrection from the dead, notice what the first thing said is. Jesus has pronounced the common human connection between suffering and wrongdoing, between bad things happening and the possibility of blame, untrue. At the very least, you donʼt have to impose that model on every instance of something wrong in a personʼs life.

Thatʼs a liberating notion. It may not always lead to a satisfying understanding. Weʼll talk about how human difficulty is an opportunity for Godʼs works to be manifest, but first just think about giving up the idea that bad things happen to bad people, or because of bad people. If you can drop that instinct– and itʼs a powerful instinct, even for people who canʼt be regarded as religious–then the title of that famous book, “When bad things happen to good people” makes less sense. The title poses a common question, the implicit injustice of suffering visited upon the innocent, but itʼs a question the Bible also asks many times over. Itʼs a complaint, often, because the idea of justice supports people getting what they deserve; but the Scriptures are full of admissions that this isnʼt how the world works.

Thatʼs not all bad. Thatʼs why I said itʼs liberating for Jesus to pronounce suffering as detached from sin. This doesnʼt fit as a response to instances where itʼs only too clear how we have brought disaster on ourselves. That broad Biblical assumption that good works lead to good results and bad works to bad results often is vindicated, and when it is, we know it.

In those cases, however, when we donʼt understand why a person has some grim burden, the point is that weʼre not obliged to look for something blamable to pin it on. People do that– they learn that neighbor Bill has cancer, and theyʼll talk about his having smoked, or his spending too much time in the sun. Neighbor Debbie has a heart attack, and people will refer to her weight, diet, and exercise. That could have something to do with it, but nobody points that out to be helpful. People say those things to validate their hope that sudden, surprising bad medical news canʼt ever be announced to them. People want to believe in their power over the future.

Itʼs also possible that the diet, the amount of exercise, the personal habits, have had nothing to do with it. Not everyone with those risk factors gets sick. Why this person? Why this person? If youʼre not asking the question in order to work on a cure, donʼt ask it. See what meaning may come out of it.

Thereʼs nothing more presumptuous than you or I announcing the meaning of another personʼs hardship. People mean well when they tell the bereaved that their dead loved one is in the arms of Jesus– if they know the person shares exactly that perspective, then it may be comforting. But otherwise itʼs better to listen, and be careful what gets said.

People do worse than that. They decide that God has brought a tragedy into another personʼs life for some good purpose, and theyʼll say so out loud. People arenʼt ashamed to comment on someone elseʼs misfortune and declare why it happened and what it should mean, and what the silver lining is in that particular cloud. Maybe someone who has lived pretty selfishly gets a serious illness and finds he or she needs people more than had been the case, and the result is some restored or improved relationships. If the sick person decides to see that outcome of their difficult circumstance as in some sense bringing good out of something bad, thatʼs fine. Perhaps thatʼs what God wants the sufferer to perceive. You and I might see it that way, too– we may not be able to help noticing something. We should, however, keep our mouths shut. Who are we to assign meaning to sad things in other peopleʼs lives? The biggest part of the Book of Job in the Bible is a warning to meddlers who want to try to stick up for their own idea of Godʼs good providence in the face of a neighborʼs troubles. Jobʼs comforters donʼt like his circumstance suggesting that life can be unfair or that God doesnʼt always seem to be as helpful as we want, but in the end of the story God sticks up for Jobʼs honest reactions and is angry at the neighbors who tried to get him to admit that there was justice in what happened to him.

Practically speaking I think the most important thing to notice in this chapter is Jesus challenging the idea that we can find someone or something to blame for what goes wrong in peopleʼs lives, and thatʼs it is better to conceive all trouble as an opportunity for the power of God. This means that when we ourselves suffer for no good reason, and we want to find a reason for it, we can hope and pray and do our best to have it be a chance for faith in God to put our problem in perspective. We can hope that we ourselves may be so faithful that people will wonder at the difference it makes that a person in a desperate spot believes in God.

Thereʼs another thing worth seeing. The blind man, at the outset, has no idea who Jesus is. Heʼs not asking for a healing. Two of the most common elements of the miraculous cures in all the gospels–faith in Jesus, and seeking a cure because of that faith, are missing. Here the initiative is with Jesus. Jesus doesnʼt wait until heʼs called. HIs power doesnʼt wait until heʼs touched in the midst of the crowd. Jesus sees that an individual needs something and Jesus does it for him, and only later the man comes to faith.

This may not seem like such a big deal to you if you havenʼt heard Christians go on and on about how the blessings of God come to those who have faith. Youʼll even hear church people try to set boundaries about who in the world is worth showing love and concern, and often theyʼll want to include some kind of faith, or some kind of openness to Christ in that. People know this– callers to the church who want to say that their car broke down and their girlfriend is sick and they need twenty bucks to get to Pittsburgh often will say, “Iʼm a Baptist,” because they know there are Baptists who will feel some obligation to help a Baptist, and not believe that God calls them to seek out and save the lost–not necessarily always by making Baptists of them, but by helping them on to their next place. Plus, you donʼt want to make the mistake of thinking that youʼre helping other people because they love Jesus. Youʼre helping people because you do.

You canʼt read Johnʼs gospel without noticing the hostility between Jesus and his fellow Jews. Itʼs almost as if Jesus and his followers werenʼt Jews, and these other people were, but of course, until late in the story, when some Greek pilgrims arrive for Passover, everybodyʼs a Jew. Whatʼs going on?

This chapter is the best clue we have to the gospelʼs origins including the painful memory of the Jewish synagogue establishment decisively making believers in Jesus no longer welcome. From Jewish sources we know that in the year 90 some versions of a synagogue prayer against heretics had a term for Christians added to it. Though it seems the process was piecemeal, eventually Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah were out of the synagogue, and certainly the community whose gospel the Gospel of John is, had that experience. Jesus, in Johnʼs gospel, three times refers to banishment from the synagogue, and here we have an elaborate reference to it, including the fear shown by the young manʼs parents to say anything to lose their own place in the synagogue.

The best way to understand the notable anti-Semitism of Johnʼs gospel is to recognize that it came out of a historical separation between two groups, with all the hard feelings that exclusion creates. This doesnʼt mean that the gospel is not helpful in our salvation, but it does mean that its grudge against the Jews shouldnʼt be taken as endorsed by God, but instead as part of the traces of human history and personal bias with which the gospels are mingled. The good news in this chapter is that the Lord doesnʼt require us to be faithful before seeking to do us good, and that when bad things happen in our lives that we donʼt understand, that rather than seek to lay blame for them, we should hope they become an opportunity for God.

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