Listen here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/bmhh587dz8dz4to/sermon%20Born%20Blind.mp3
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:2-3
The first people in the Bible recorded to be struck blind come from way back in the book of Genesis. The citizens of Sodom were pounding on the door of Lot’s house, insisting that he deliver his guests over to them so that they could abuse them. The townspeople didn’t know who they were messing with. Those visitors were angels with powers beyond human understanding. The angelic visitors struck the men blind and they were left groping about, presumably until the next day when the fire and brimstone fell and destroyed them and their whole city. A similar thing happened in the book of Acts when Elymas the magician opposed the Gospel which Paul and Barnabas were preaching on the island of Cyprus. Paul cursed him and Elymas was struck blind. The result was that even more people believed in the message which Paul had brought. Without a doubt, in both Old Testament and New, blindness can come as a kind of curse. And, biblically speaking blindness is never something that just happens. When Moses was complaining before God that he could not speak to Pharaoh, God identified Himself in this way: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” God gives you sight or God makes you blind. His will is done in either case.
And if it’s a curse, that curse had its consequences in Jesus’ day. it meant that you could not study the Scriptures by yourself. No one had come up with Braille, of course, so the study of the Bible, which the Pharisees practiced as central to their faith, was largely cut off from the blind. Blindness excluded people from performing sacred duties before God. Already back in the book of Leviticus, any of the children of Aaron who would have been active as priests were to be prohibited from serving if they had any physical defect, blindness included.
So the question from the Apostles that day in Jerusalem made good sense. Who sinned with the result that this man was born blind? The man himself or his parents? Jewish rabbis were themselves debating the issue. Some could point to a passage like that in Deuteronomy which says that the sins of the parents are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. Others could point to Jeremiah where God declares that each soul will die for its own sins and only its own sins and not for those of its parents. Some then were speculating that somehow the baby in the mother’s womb had already done some wrong that brought about this defect as a punishment.
Whether the blindness came as a curse or not, the blind man knew real suffering because of it. In that ancient time, blindness would have been a sentence to live in poverty, without any means of providing for yourself save to beg from the generosity of others. And not everyone was kind and generous. As we see, many were suspicious that you somehow deserved your plight and brought a curse down upon yourself. The self-righteous might hurl insults at you; the malicious and cruel might play tricks on you. Few would befriend a blind man. No one would marry one. It would be a hard life of loneliness and destitution. For this blind man, he never knew of anything else. His whole life he could hear people talk about seeing but he had never seen a single thing, not a single color, not a single glimmer. It had been black darkness all about him and that was all knew.
Who sinned so that this person was born blind? In a sense you and I already know the answer to that. And we know why people get cancer and why babies die of AIDS. And we know why mudslides swallow up neighborhoods and why airplanes go missing in the middle of the ocean. We can say that it’s all due to sin and one specific sin: the sin of Adam and Eve which expelled us from Paradise and brought God’s perfect world under His curse. It’s all broken now and bad things happen. I won’t say that bad things happen to good people. From a Biblical diagnosis of humanity, there are no truly good people who of themselves deserve to be spared. As Martin Luther writes in his Catechism: “We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” So, the answer is yes and yes. Yes our parents sinned – and our first parents first and foremost; and yes, we ourselves sin and there isn’t a moment when we don’t fall short of the glory of God. And yes, we might also add that we suffer because we live in a sinful world and there are other sinners, too, who hurt and harm, maim and destroy, steal, rob and devour. Sin is everywhere wrecking its havoc—in our parents’ hearts, in our own hearts, and in our neighbors’ hearts.
We could say all that and we would be right. But this is not what Jesus said that day when He met the blind man. Rather, He said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” By His gracious will, Jesus is declaring a kind of absolution, loosing everyone involved from any charge of sin and letting them go guiltless. Jesus says He is the light of world. His coming sheds new light on all our suffering. His coming opens our eyes to the radical reality that God can even redeem our brokenness and use it for His glory, that His strength might be made perfect in our weakness. The Lord speaks to the man’s blindness and explains it, not from his past but from his future, the very future which Jesus has come to create and give to him. The Lord takes that cursed blindness and highjacks it into His own direction – that His own glory might be revealed and that others might come to faith in Him and that the man himself might see, truly see, not just physically but even spiritually in the knowledge of Christ the Savior.
Nowadays, people can’t make much sense of suffering anymore. Since the idea of sin and punishment isn’t in vogue any more, people see suffering as just stuff that happens. “Stuff happens” – or something like that. Many people believe luck and chance govern their lives, that they themselves are nothing more than molecules which could have been monkeys or molasses but instead they are people randomly bouncing through life, getting bruised and beaten and bloodied and ultimately buried in the process. With such a worldview, there can’t be any point to suffering. It should be avoided at all costs, alleviated as much as possible, ended as quickly as possible. Some would even pick death over suffering, saying its more decent to die with dignity than to live with pain.
Such solutions are blind to the light of our Lord, who not only healed the blind man but He went Himself to the cross of suffering, He chose the cross of suffering in order to reveal the glory of God. Christ our Lord has both these things for us: healing for our suffering and meaning within our suffering. There will be healing, perfect and glorious healing for each one of us. You will be healed from your heart disease and healed from your cancer. You will be healed from your diabetes and healed from your arthritis, back-pain and headaches, healed from your psychoses and neuroses, too. Poor vision, athletes’ foot and ulcers – everything will have its healing once the fullness of the glory of God is revealed in the world to come. Even now we have foretastes of this as His Spirit does His work to mend us and restore us in various ways. Just last week we prayed for Sandy Affholter whose doctors had said there was nothing more to do for her because of her heart and lung problems. Then, by God’s power, she got better and she’s returning home with a clean bill of health. We also prayed for little baby Nicholas Scott Olsen. His infection cleared up and he’s back home with his family too. Christine Stierle has come through her final major surgery this week. Having come through an accident as the only survivor and with some saying she had little chance to make it after her injuries, God has restored her. Her recovery is indeed miraculous.
But, you know as well as I, there are also people on our prayer list who have been there for months and years. And sometimes people are removed from the prayer list, not because they got better, but simply because they came to the end of their earthly trials. That doesn’t mean that God won’t heal them. He will heal– in the complete healing of the resurrection of the dead. That’s good, too. In fact, it’s the best and most perfect deliverance God does.
But in the meantime, all the suffering of Christians is directed forward to the glory of God. It is sanctified suffering, made holy by the presence and purpose of Jesus. He absolves us, frees us, from any guilt we may have had in causing our own suffering and he transforms its meaning. It is no longer punishment. Suffering is a means for God to work in our lives. Suffering is the training ground for our faith, teaching us to trust in God’s Word even in the face of hardship and loss. It is the part of the process of our purification, by which the Holy Spirit loosens us from this passing world and sets our hopes in the world to come. It is instrumental in the Father’s discipline of His children, the means by which He corrects us and guides us to walk more faithfully in His ways. Last week’s epistle lesson taught us: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
Suffering for Christ and for His Gospel, Luther said, is one of the marks of the true Church on earth. There will be persecution and there will be martyrs because the demonic forces who hold this world hostage hated our Lord and they continue to oppose those who bear His message. Nevertheless, even the Roman empire noted how bravely, how boldly the early Christians went to their deaths, whether they were being beheaded by the sword or burnt by the flames or torn by wild beasts in the amphitheater. Even today, the Christian who bears a terminal illness with faith and trust in God, committing themselves to His care with all humility and patience and courage – such brothers and sisters bear a witness which others note. People can see that faith in Christ makes a difference in their lives.
And this is true even in the face the ultimate suffering: the final suffering of death. One seminary professor who had attended a number of deaths throughout his ministry said that Christian deaths were often remarkably different. Non-believers might weep and wail and scream. They might shake with terror or grow silent in dread and despair. Christians could go peacefully, accepting their final hour as a call home to their Father, a final release from this broken world and a joyful entrance into the mansions of the Lord. Their whole earthly lives they had been in training for that hour as day by day they turned to Christ in faith in all kinds of trials and circumstances. So when the last one comes, they were ready.
Nevertheless, suffering still brings confusion and questions. It is not easy to bear it continually with faith and Christian resignation. But by the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know this for sure: God is working good. Even through our suffering and in its very midst, He is present to work all things to our benefit according to His purpose—not necessarily according to our choosing, but according to the good and gracious purpose of His own mysterious will— and He is bringing about His glory. Looking back in our own lives, our suffering may not make much sense. If our eyes can only see what we can do with our own suffering, we are blind to the real possibilities. But look back to the cross, see the resurrection which followed. Look forward to the final revelation and see the healing of the world to come. Your suffering fits in His story and for His glory.