“I am the light of the world”
(1 Samuel 16.1-13, Ephesians 5.8-14,Ps 23, John 9.1-41)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just because we are scattered from our Church, it doesn’t mean we should abandon Lent. If anything this is the time to embrace it more, to enter more deeply its riches and its challenges.
Lent is a season when we are called to think seriously about sin, but today’s Gospel reading is a warning not to say more than is prudent. Generally we are a lot more comfortable talking about other people’s sin than our own – and when people start talking they often don’t know when to stop.
For example, very recently President Trump has taken to calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” – a very explicit attempt to place the blame for this disease elsewhere, coupled with a nasty side order of xenophobia.
One of the reasons we create the sin and suffering link is because it makes the world seem a little safer. When things are not fair, it can make us question the very existence of God. How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow such suffering? In a strange though understandable way, linking sin to justice makes the world seem fair once more. It means that someone who suffers must be being punished for something they had done. All is right once more.
And of course, this view of the world is very comfortable if you have no suffering in your life – after all, no-one can then accuse you of having any secret sins!
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the attitude of the disciples in today’s passage. They had a genuine question – what had this man done to deserve being blinded? But the disciples were also aware that this man has been born blind. His “punishment” came before he ever had a chance to sin in the first place.
There are passages in the Old Testament that would allow the continuation of the link between sin and suffering – Exodus and Numbers both contain passages which imply justice can be passed onward. For example, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing the children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 20.5) This is probably where the disciples’ question about whether the man sinned or whether his parents sinned came from.
But Jesus refused to get drawn into their question. As much as it would make life simple, this isn’t how the world works. Of course, we all hope that an act of goodness will have happy consequences, such as letting someone out into busy traffic makes the person smile, have a better day, be perhaps kinder to someone else. And we know that unkind actions usually have harsh consequences, such as drink driving can cause road accidents.
But it isn’t necessarily so – sometimes an act of kindness is scorned, sometimes a reckless driver gets away with it.
So Jesus, knowing that the world is more mysterious than his disciples understand moved on instead to hope – he healed the man.
In this event the whole of John’s Gospel is played out, words and metaphors become real. In the Prologue John wrote “the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” and in verse 5 of today’s reading Jesus states “I am the light of the world.” The blind man was in darkness, but after encountering Jesus he is transformed, he is brought into light.
This relationship of darkness and light is a repeating pattern across time. Right at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, the world is dark and full of chaos; God doesn’t look at the chaos and talk about it. He gets on and creates the light. And again, later, after the darkness and confusion of Good Friday, there will come the light and new life of the first Easter Sunday.
This pattern of God at work in the world gives us hope that the current darkness and turmoil, we too will be brought into the light. However, we are in a time of change, and change is something that many people struggle to come to terms with. Such is the transforming power of Jesus that the onlookers to the miraculous healing of the blind man simply could not believe it was the same person. It is the same with some of the resurrection appearances – often Jesus was not recognised at first. New life is just that – new.
Indeed, although we believe in Jesus for ourselves, it is not always easy to believe in him in other people. It is easy to be cynical about a convicted criminal who has ‘found God’, but isn’t that the truth of the power of Jesus? Jesus is someone who can transform lives – the blind to see, the lame to walk, the sinner to become a better person?
At present we are trying to transform the Church to meet these challenging times, and there are some people who cannot see “Church” in the online streaming and activities happening outside of the church building, and plenty of people are struggling to cope with the lack of public worship as they know it. It takes time to get used to change.
I want to thank, at this point, the pioneers who made this current transformation easier for many church leaders – for the people with disabilities who have been fighting for access in new and innovative ways in the workplace, schools and universities, and, yes, in the Church. And for a long time no-one took them seriously. We are being transformed by the light they have already brought to being shut out of the church buildings – and I, for one, apologise for not trying harder, for not listening more. I am listening now, I am learning from them, and they have a lot to teach.
It is a sharp reminder that Jesus continues to work through the lives of every person. Not just the able-bodied, but every precious child of God.
Not everyone understands that. Today, as then, we may frightened by what this display of divine power of transformation means, because it challenges our understanding of God and the world. In the Gospel those who were frighted threatened people with exile if they stood up and proclaimed the power of Jesus. Even the man’s parents crumbled under such forceful opposition, saying about their vulnerable son ‘he can speak for himself’.
Only the man himself, the one whose life had actually been touched by Jesus, had the strength and courage to stand up and say “I was blind, now I see”.
This Gospel passage is placed in Lent because it reminds us that we are all walking in darkness, but that Jesus is the light of the whole world. We must guard against becoming smug or self-righteous, unable to recognise to our own sins, our own need for grace. It isn’t enough for us to sit in the dark, trying to categorise the different types or levels of darkness, or trying to work out who should be in the darkness and why, but rather to trust in Jesus to lead us out of that darkness.
We can’t explain away sin and suffering in some glib manner. The world isn’t fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.
But that is not the end of the story. Easter is coming – full of transforming light, new life, and love.
And the darkness will not overcome it.
(Image: ‘Healing of the Blind Man’ by Brian Jekel)