Sunday 26 March 2017

A Lesson in Discernment: A Sermon for Lent 4A

The story of the blind man told in our Gospel this morning is well-told. It is like a short play in six scenes as we move from the healing to the reactions, both to the newly-sighted man and to Jesus’ subversive action. We always refer to it as the healing of the man born blind but really very little of it is actually about that healing! The healing is all done and over with by verse 7 of this long chapter. The remaining 34 verses deal with the reactions of various people and the deeper significance of the healing sign. In John's view, all Jesus' miracles are signs that point to his identity and his role in the divine plan, but not all people interpret them correctly as signs pointing to Jesus' identity as Son, empowered by God to do God's works in the world.

Hence a story like this, told in an interesting and engaging way that still shows the meaning of this sign of healing. It also touches on many major themes of Jesus' story as told by John: how and why do we come to trust in Jesus, what true sight and true blindness are, what true illumination and true darkness are. John takes the theme of light and uses it to contrast blindness and sight on both a physical and spiritual level. The focus on spiritual sight and discernment begins with the conversation the disciples have with Jesus before he heals the man. They assume the man is blind because someone sinned, but Jesus denies the connection and heals the man without any injunction to “sin no more”, such as he sometimes said when he healed, as for example in the case of the man healed by the pool at Bethesda earlier in this gospel. Even in this opening scene we begin to suspect that the blind one (or ones) is not the man being physically cured.

In the last scene, after being jeered at by a group described as ‘the Jews’ -- a confusing designation in a work in which virtually everyone is in fact Jewish and which probably means members of the Jerusalem ‘establishment’ here – the healed man encounters Jesus again. Before this, the authorities had responded with scorn when the man defended Jesus as being from God, saying “You were born entirely in sins and are you trying to teach us?” Jesus, on the other hand, sought the man out to call him into a relationship of trust in the Son of Man, that is, in Jesus himself. The man, relying upon his new spiritual insight, responds to that call with faith. It's the Pharisees, who were supposed to have spiritual discernment, that Jesus condemns.

So in this story we see a man travel the road from physical blindness to sight and, what is much more difficult, the road from spiritual blindness to insight, the insight that allows him to recognise Jesus and put his trust in him. As healer Jesus gives this unnamed man not just physical sight, but a degree of spiritual discernment that is greater than that of those who claim to be spiritual leaders.

In Lent we seek to walk a path to that insight and discernment and that path is very similar to the one in our very familiar psalm for this morning. We walk through the darkest valley and yet the presence of God, symbolised by the shepherd's rod and his staff, comforts us and brings us safely to the green pastures and still waters. Our souls are restored by God (as the man’s body was restored by Jesus) and we rest in the hope of abiding in the Lord’s house forever.

In the reading from the book of Samuel, we have another story of discernment: Samuel is sent by YHWH to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem. There he will find and anoint the one YHWH has chosen to be king. Since there is already an anointed king, Saul, Samuel's task is more than usually fraught. But he goes. At Jesse's home, one son after another is brought out to Samuel, and none of them is the one. Not the tall and handsome Eliab, nor Abinadab, nor Shammah, nor any of the 4 others who are paraded before the prophet and priest. So Samuel asks, are these all your sons? And Jesse at last produces his youngest, David, who is keeping the sheep. YHWH gives Samuel the discernment to see that this lad is one that YHWH wants to be anointed as king, just as Jesus gives the healed man the discernment to see that Jesus is the one that YHWH has anointed as Messiah and Son.

But if these readings are full of examples of vision and discernment, they are also stories of surprise, indeed of shock and unexpectedness. The disciples are shocked when Jesus tells them there's no connection between the blindness of the man they saw begging and human sin. He is not the victim of either his own sinfulness or his parents'. Instead he is an important element in God's plan, making it possible for God's works to be revealed in him by Jesus' act of healing. The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus' healing on Sabbath; the authorities are shocked when the man challenges them; the bystanders at the end of the story are shocked by Jesus' condemnation. And the story of the anointing of David piles surprises one on top the other in the same way. As he sees each brother, each son of Jesse, Samuel is convinced that this is the one and he is proven wrong. Everything waits upon the appearance of the last brother, David, the youngest. He has the youngest brother's task of guarding the sheep, but God will give him the task of shepherding God's people: an unexpected and surprising end to the story.

We must never forget God's ability to surprise us and shock us! And we often need to be shocked and surprised. Like the disciples we fall into an easy accommodation with the ideas and opinions of the world around us, and have to be shocked into the recognition that God's values and society's values are not the same. If we are to be genuine disciples, genuine witnesses, we must conform to Jesus' way of thinking and acting and not the prevailing culture. Like Samuel we sometimes think we know in advance what the whole plan is rather than just our assigned role. He thought he knew what kind of man YHWH would choose and had to be reminded “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart”. So God delivers to us the shocks and surprises we need, when we need them.

St Paul certainly would have understood that. He got a big shock and surprise on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus and nothing was ever the same for him thereafter. In our epistle reading from Ephesians, he quotes a line from a hymn based on Second Isaiah: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Here is the wakeup call that we all sometimes need in order to receive the insight that Jesus is talking about in our gospel passage. Christ will shine on us like the sunrise of a new day. This whole passage is also full of imagery of light and darkness, like the Gospel reading, except that Paul is more concerned about our actions here. Speaking to a community which, like ours, was made up mostly of those who had been baptised into relationship with God and Jesus from a Gentile background, he used the now-familiar images of light and darkness to emphasise the contrast between two ways of living. His concern is for their new way of life and only if they are awake and in the light will they be able to avoid sliding back into old ways. We too need to be awake and in the light to avoid sliding back into conformity with the values of the culture that surrounds us.

They, and we, must now walk in the light and turn aside from the dark. They must use their new insight to find out what is pleasing to God and act accordingly. Spiritual sight and discernment have brought us this far: it has brought us into a relationship with Jesus and with his Father. Now we need to act like children of light and seek the fruit of the light by finding out what is pleasing to the Lord. Notice that St Paul just assumes that we have what we need both to figure that out and to do it. When you are "woke" you know how to act – Paul doesn't need to paint you a picture. Light, with its power to make things visible, will do that. And interestingly here Paul does not seem to be anticipating that his readers will need further help to do what's pleasing to God once they are light in the Lord.

What is unspoken here, in all these readings, is love. Love is the divine light that illuminates our relationship with God, that shows us what is pleasing to God, and that makes us able and willing to do what pleases God. Love motivates the divine plan that Jesus teaches the disciples is revealed in the healing of the blind man, the divine plan that began with the anointing of David and worked itself out in the anointing of Jesus. May we be open to receive that love, and follow its light, most especially in this season of Lent. Amen