John 9: 1-41
Brothers and sisters in Christ:
To say that we are living in a very unusual time would be an understatement. Over and over in my conversations with people in the congregation, that sentiment has been echoed; ALL of us have never experienced anything like we see in the world today with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. So, what are we to think of all of this? I offer a few thoughts and by the way, my thoughts are entirely my own, nor are they in any particular order)
First of all, let’s be honest with ourselves and let’s be honest about our limitations. We often don’t see our limitations; we think that the sky is the limit when it comes to human ingenuity. The human race has accomplished some amazing things so when we run into something that we can’t control, we are at a loss.
Part of our limitation is due to the fact that we are unable to answer many of the questions we voice; we like certainty and we want answers. How do you explain the unexplainable? I don’t know and sometimes I wonder if these are mysteries that we will never be able to fathom. Human beings are often uncomfortable with the mysteries of life.
I think we have to be honest in our emotions. Doubt, even anger, is an understandable response to such events and denying such emotions -- or, worse, quashing them by calling them unfaithful -- is not fair to each other or to the Biblical witness. \
We need to be careful that we don’t point fingers at those who express anger or doubt and tell them that if they REALLY had faith, then they wouldn’t be worried. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is part of the faith spectrum in that we often move between faith and doubt as we experience life. The opposite of doubt is absolute certainty and I suspect there is not a person in the world who is absolutely certain about where this virus is going or how long it will remain.
When it comes to the Biblical witness in dealing with emotions, none is more powerful than LAMENT. Lament is often found in the Psalms and essentially is a song in which we are allowed and even encouraged to name our pain, our sorrow and to grieve such losses. Over one-third of the Psalms are laments. For example, Psalm 13 contains the cry, “How long O Lord?” Psalm 22 (my personal favourite) starts out with the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This Psalm was spoken by Jesus on the cross who laments his suffering and death.
We do not offer lament primarily to get answers in the first place, but rather to be joined to others and to God through our lament.
In the Old Testament book of Job, Job laments his condition. Unfortunately, there are those who are not prepared to lament with Job, they are the ones who have all the answers -- Job's friends -- are they are the ones who get it wrong. Even when God appears in the whirlwind, it is not so much to give Job an answer as to honor his questions and restore relationship with him.
In our lament, our relationship with God is solidified and we see and feel our need for God when we seem to be most vulnerable. We need not succumb to the pressure to find answers to questions that cannot, this side of the heaven, be answered.
This is affirmed in Scripture; while the lament is spoken, the Biblical witness offered in the Psalms indicates the presence of God in our lives.
In Psalm 22 the writer says:
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
After his lament, the writer of Psalm 13 says:
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
In each of these psalms, the writer first laments and then in sharing that lament with God and with others, is eventually led to see that God is merciful and will deal graciously. The God of grace will not put you to shame.
This is important because I think it helps us to see God. Too often we look at God as one who is wrathful or punishes. We might wonder where God is in the current circumstances or why God is allowing things to happen in such a way. In our desire for certainty and answers, we might suggest that God is warning us, or testing us or punishing us. Such suggestions are not helpful and often do great damage.
Further, they do not tell the truth about the God we know in Jesus Christ. The God we know in Jesus comes shining through in today’s gospel reading.
The gospel story (John 9: 1-41) begins in Jerusalem, during the Festival of the Tabernacles.
In the fall of the year, the crops were off the field, and Jewish people gathered to celebrate. Pilgrims from all over Palestine would gather in Jerusalem for the annual holiday festival, the Feast of the Tabernacles.
The Feast of the Tabernacles was a harvest festival where the religious pilgrims would celebrate and give thanks for the bounty that God had provided. As our gospel reading begins, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, like many, many other religious pilgrims, to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles.
The Feast of the Tabernacles celebrated the harvest by employing a variety of symbols that allowed the pilgrims to focus their thanksgiving. Water was used in a variety of ceremonies to give thanks to God, and so was the symbol of light.
One of the things that the religious pilgrims did, was to “light up Jerusalem.” In the evenings of the festival, pilgrims would set bonfires, would light torches, so that the whole city was lit up and from a distance it was very impressive. Jerusalem sparkled with light and could be seen from a great distance.
Religious pilgrims lit fires and torches to give glory and praise to God during this thanksgiving festival, but also to remind themselves that they were the people of God, the covenant people and that their nation was called to be a light and an example to the rest of the world.
As Jesus and his disciples walk throughout city during this Feast of the Tabernacles, they encounter a man who has been blind from birth. The disciples wonder out loud whether it was the sins of his parents, which caused his blindness; such was the popular understanding.
You can see how the disciples of Jesus were searching for the easy answers; their answers attacked the faith of the blind man and his parents. The disciples were not about to admit to the limitations of humanity, to admit there were mysteries in life, nor were they willing to be sorrowful or grieve with this blind man in his plight.
Jesus denies all of this and instead, begins to focus on the man’s blindness, on his need for help, his need for healing and also, in the midst of his travails, to experience the grace and mercy of God. Jesus says:
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." (John 9: 3-5)
I think Jesus was instructing his disciples to seek God not above tragedy -- controlling the fates of nature and humanity -- but rather amid tragedy, suffering with the blind man and then acting with love, with grace and mercy. This is exactly what Jesus did and nowhere is this more clear than in the cross of Jesus, where God was joined to the fullest human experience of loss -- suffering an unjust and cruel death -- out of love for us. God is present -- not causing chaos but entering into it, not sending calamity but suffering through it, not standing over us but holding tightly onto us and promising never to let go. Wherever there is human tragedy and pain, the incarnate and crucified God is there.
Jesus does not only suffer with us but as he instructs his disciples he also tells them that God works through them and through us. Jesus says that as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world. As long as he is in the world, so the church is also in the world. As a consequence, Jesus is the light of the world through us.
In the second reading for today, Ephesians 5: 8-14, the writer of Ephesians says:
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
To confess that we who are broken, limited, and sinful are those persons and people through whom Christ is active in the world is incredibly empowering, as God simultaneously sanctifies, commissions, and sends us into the world to bear and to be Christ's healing and helping presence. Even in the face of a calamity this immense, we are not helpless.
Through our presence, in the lives of others, through our positive words of encouragement, we are the body of Christ and agents of God's redemptive and restoring love in the world.
While we hear these words, we do realize that there are people suffering every day and indeed this whole world groans under the weight and limitations of suffering and death.
We can still feel overwhelmed. But there is promise. For this reason, the gospel is always promise. At times, promises may not seem like much in the face of human tragedy, yet they always serve to create faith and restore hope. Our God has promised, in time, to wipe all tears from every eye and to create a new heaven and earth where suffering is no more. Through the ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that promise remains alive and we carry that promise with us.
That promise is spoken so powerfully in the psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
(portions of this sermon were taken from the website, “Dear Working Preacher,” and can be found at the following link: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1485. Also, portions were taken from the website, Christianity Today, and the article entitled, Scripture and Neuroscience Agree: It Helps to Lament in Community and are found at the following link: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/november-web-only/neuroscience-and-scripture-agree-it-helps-to-lament-in-comm.html?fbclid=IwAR2xy1NB95AEAbl_3OVSXStcJxScSqeGQh2plu1VAjTzSpUEIAcR4ELpAzw)