A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 12, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 9: 35-41
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
It has been almost a month now since we last took a look in John's gospel, but when we did, back then, we were beginning chapter 9. Now like we've seen over and over again throughout the gospel, this chapter started with a miracle, and then straight to form the miracle was on the sabbath, and also straight to form the religious authorities are now upset with Jesus. This time there was the healing of a man who was blind from birth, and there we discussion about it concerning sin, and who was to blame for the blindness. Jesus doesn't give an answer blaming anyone, instead talks about the revealing of the glory of God through this man, and he puts mud on his eyes, then he sends him to wash to be healed, washing his eyes in the Pool at Siloam, which is the sending place. The rest of the chapter covers up the fall out from this healing: The pharisees investigate, they get hung up again on the same things, Jesus not following the law and healing on the Sabbath, and Jesus also again, claiming to be the son of God, when they are sure he is a sinner. . . it all comes to a conclusion in the following passage. . . this is the end of chapter 9, verses 35-41:
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. 
Again we have Jesus claiming to be the Son of Man/Son of God, and the man healed, who was formerly blind sees him as such, and the Pharisees, who have always been able to see, cannot see Jesus as the Son of God, they are blinded to who he is by something. We've been talking about this situation throughout the gospel, each chapter seems to have its own take on this same situation. This time it's juxtaposed poetically with the metaphor of seeing and blindness. The irony of the blind man being able to see what the people who have always been able to see cannot. Jesus takes it one step further when he says. . . "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, "We see" your sin remains." This is the line that closes the chapter. This is the line that stood out to me as important to investigate and think about this week. Because you say, "We See" your sin remains. . . .
And I think, what does seeing have to do with sin? So many times we look at this metaphor from the position of the blind man. . . and we think of his blindness as being caused by sin. . . even the disciples ask this question at the beginning. We can see the justice in ailments being caused by sin. . . it makes sense in a cosmic idea of karma, and it fits what we think we know about the world, but Jesus has already turned that on its head. And then the next easy metaphor is that the blind man was blind but could see Jesus, and these guys can see, but can't see Jesus, so we get the concept of physical blindness and the concept of spiritual blindness, and they do not always coincide, and it would seem in this case instead they have some kind of opposing correlation. . . . which Jesus takes one step further, and says, because they say "We See" their sin remains, but if they were blind they would be without sin, somehow. . . interesting.
I want to take a step back for a moment, then we'll come back to this new sin question. I took the Old Testament Lesson from the book of Proverbs, actually from the very beginning of the book, where the purpose of the book is given. Proverbs is a book about wisdom, a book full of precepts and principles for living a wise life. It is traditionally thought to have been written by Solomon, who as part of the story goes, was granted one thing from God, whatever he asked, and he asked for wisdom. Now the beginning outlines exactly what these proverbs teach, and the nouns tell you everything you want to know. Here they are: "wisdom, instruction, understanding, insight, wise dealing, righteousness, justice, equity, shrewdness, knowledge, prudence, learning, discerning, skill." That is quite a list, and if you had that going on in life you'd be pretty set. Even if you just had the top five of those you'd be doing pretty well, but after all of that, he sums it up, and says the one idea that holds it all together, that puts it in perspective, the gateway towards the others, the first step. . . . it actually reminds me of Paul in 1Corinthians 13:
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
If you don't have love, you don't have any of those things, or they are worthless, and Solomon says that if you don't have this one thing, you will be missing out on all that wisdom, instruction, understanding, insight, wise dealing, righteousness, justice, equity, shrewdness, knowledge, prudence, learning, discerning, skill." And he says that all of that good stuff is begun with the "Fear of the Lord," he says, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge." After rolling out that impressive list, he says that the beginning of all that is Fear of the Lord.
Now if you have ever been in an adult Sunday School you have talked to death this idea that fear is not fear, that it has a more complicated definition than just being afraid. And it is an important distinction because fear is not something that is good. Most of the evil, hatred, hoarding, and the sinning that folks do in this world is seemingly rooted in fear, so this fear must be a little bit different. The word in Hebrew is Yawray, and if you look up the word's meaning, much like the Sunday School talk about it, it has the two distinct meanings. One repulsion based in something being a frightening, terrible, dreadful thing, and the other reverence, honour, awe. . . that kind of stuff. Now it makes sense to us that this word could be used in both situations and mean both things, but what is significant is that the Hebrews used the same word in both both situations, so as we see the distinction between the two, it is likely for them there was more of a connection.
So what causes fear? What causes awe? and so, what causes the beginning of knowledge. I try to think about the things that scare me. . . and I think about the snake that I can't see, that one scares me much more than the snake that I can see. I want to take a picture of the snake I can see to show the girls, but the one I can't see gives me the willies. It's the sneakiness of the snake or the mouse, that startles us. If we think about our other fears, like fear of the future, and fear about what will happen to us, they are wrapped around this idea of unknown. We don't know, we are in anticipation of it, and it makes us fearful. . . and this kind of fear makes us humble. . . sometimes it can make us avoid, but once fear has to be faced, we take a breath, and we step forward in humility before our fears. . . see this is how they are connected. Fears that we avoid cause us problems and leave to evil, but fears that we face takes a whole lot of humility. You have to take stock you have to know yourself, and you just are. . . do you see some of the connection to standing before God in fear and trembling. . . it's about being humble, and vulnerable.
My colleague at school, he's the head of the English Department, and his classroom is right next to mine. He's got a sign on the door that says, if you ask a question you could be seen as a fool for a minute, but if you never ask you could be a fool for a lifetime. Asking that question takes the realization that you do not know the answer. . . and you humble yourself enough to admit it, and that leads to the gaining of that knowledge.
In religion I think this not knowing refers to Mystery, and mystery to me is what these Pharisees were not allowing themselves to realize. They thought they knew it all. They thought that they had the checklist, and they could apply it to people and decide whether the person fit or didn't, whether the person was in or out, whether the teacher was teaching truth, and whether the supposed Messiah was legit. They applied the checklist to Jesus and they found him lacking, and so since he was claiming to be the Messiah they had to do something about it. It's like a great line from the movie Hoosiers. . . the new coach has come and one of the parents of the players had been running practice. . . and the parent doesn't like it, and the coach basically politely kicks him out of practice, making sure he knew the boundaries. . . the parent says. . . "There are two kinds of dumb, uh... guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon, and, uh, guy who does the same thing in my living room. First one don't matter, the second one you're kinda forced to deal with." Jesus is barking at the moon, and these guys have been pushed and now they feel they have to deal with it. . . why, because they knew. They were sure. . . and Jesus didn't fit into their criteria.
Now these guys are supposed to know, why don't they, and why does this blind man. I think the answer lies in this quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It comes from the Advent devotional of his I have, some of you who were at the advent study this past December may remember it. . . and the emphasis on this idea of mystery. He says:
The mystery remains a mystery. It withdraws from our grasp. Mystery, however, does not mean simply not knowing something.
The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us. The mystery of other people is not reduced by getting to know more and more about them. Rather, in their closeness they become more and more mysterious. And the final depth of all mystery is when two people come to close to each other that they love each other.
Do you see the difference, yet? What Jesus wants these people to realize is that religion/faith/spirituality/true. . . whatever you want to call it, just ain't about their list. It is about relationship, and building a relationship with God about love. . . and closeness does not result in you becoming an expert, and a bean counter, and judge about who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, but closeness results in mystery. . . and mystery is founded in more than not knowing, but in love, and fear, and awe, and any other word that is out there. It is a dance, an endless never ending dance, where the more you know the more you have a thirst for more, and the more you want, and the more you realize is out there that you haven't even a clue about yet. It is danger and vulnerability, and it doesn't include control, it includes risk, and mystery, and that leads to more wisdom, which again leads to more mystery.
One of the major problems of organized religion is that it can become a roadmap, and a roadmap that points in one direction, and leads a group of people trying to get them to have an experience of the divine, of the mystery. . . and the roadmap tends to cheapen the mystery, which leads to false promises, and let down people. I always get the vision of Huckleberry Finn, praying for those fish hooks, and when they don't come he don't put no stock in praying. I don't use this quote to be political but to prove a point, that applies across political spectrums. . . but Reagan once said, the problem with. . . (and I'll leave it blank because who he was talking about isn't my target) but it isn't that they are ignorant, it's that they know so much that just ain't so. . . This is an issue of the Pharisees here. It is also an issue across the board of our society. We have come to believe that our knowledge of things is complete and finite, and that leaves us way too sure of our body of knowledge, and so we have lost the fear, lost the love, and lost the mystery, both to God and to each other. We say we see, and since we say we see, we know. . . Jesus says, “because you say you see, your sin remains. . . Woe to us, because when we do the next step seems to be to crucify Jesus. God help us we know not what we do, but woe to us for we think we do. We think we see, we say we see, and in saying so, we confirm that we do not.