Sunday, March 23, 2008

Afraid Yet Filled with Joy

Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; 2:1-10; Matthew 28:1-10

GRACE AND PEACE TO YOU in the name of our risen Lord Jesus Christ!

In Matthew 28, verse 8 we read:

"So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy . . . "

Joy on Easter Sunday we know about. Christ is risen! But fear? What does fear have to do with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ?

As it turns out, a lot. In fact, the amount of joy we feel at Jesus risen is only as great as the holy fear it brings.

St. Matthew tells us Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week after Jesus was crucified. They intended to look at the tomb, to do more to prepare Jesus’ body for proper burial. They weren’t prepared for what awaited them there. They had every right to be afraid.

First of all, there was the violent earthquake. That was frightening enough. But more terrible by far was the angel of the Lord who came down from heaven and rolled back the stone of Jesus’ tomb. Do you think this angel was like the little winged babies you see on Valentines? Or like the doe-eyed girlie angels you see in popular art, with their sweet simpering looks and their form-fitting robes? Think again! This was a mighty warrior of God, with a face like lightning and clothing white as purest snow! This was a being from heaven so terrifying that the soldiers guarding the tomb passed out in a dead faint!

I’m sure the women felt they were about to pass out likewise! But the angel strengthened them with his word: "Do not be afraid," he told them. For they were very afraid indeed. "I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay."

The women surely obeyed and looked; how can you disobey a fearsome angel of the Lord? And now they had something else to be afraid about. For they saw the tomb was empty! And obviously, it had been empty before the angel rolled the stone away! Where was Jesus? How could He not be there? How did He get out? There was no earthly reason His body could be gone! But His body was gone. He wasn’t there; as the angel said, He was risen!

This was indeed something to be afraid of, and something to be joyful about, too. The sight of the empty tomb laid the fear of God upon these disciples. Nothing other than the direct power and presence of Almighty God could have worked the great and awesome miracle those women were confronted with that first Easter morning.

And then-- and then-- as they hurried away, afraid yet filled with joy, they encountered Jesus Himself. Did they say, "Oh, Jesus, it’s only You. Hey, You’re alive again! Congratulations, that’s really great!"?

No! They fell at His feet in worship and holy awe! They recognised in Him the physical presence of Almighty God! Once more they have to be reassured. The risen Jesus comforts them, saying, "Do not be afraid." Why? Because it’s no big deal to stand in the presence of the God-Man who has defeated death? No, Jesus tells them not to be afraid because His defeat of death also defeats our sin and rebellion, all those things that made them-- and us-- unable to bear the presence of God. Because Christ is risen, heaven and earth are no longer split asunder; they’re brought together in joyfulness and love! The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ does not remove the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom; rather, it catches us up into that awe and wonder, where our holy fear is as blissful as our joy, and our joy is as stupendous as our fear.

That’s how it was for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary that resurrection morning. But is that really how it is with us? This morning, are we experiencing the holy fear of the resurrection of our Lord? Are our souls truly leaping and dancing in His resurrection joy? Are we so overwhelmed by the news that we need Him to calm us and tell us, "Do not be afraid?"

If not, could it be that maybe for us Christ’s resurrection doesn’t seem all that real? Kind of remote from our personal experience?

Think of it this way: Maybe late at night you’ve tuned your radio to Coast-to-Coast AM. No, I won’t make you admit it. It’s a guilty pleasure--I know. Coast-to-Coast is driven by guests and callers who are always talking about frightful wonders. UFOs and space aliens who snatch helpless humans out of their cars and their beds! The Bigfoot monster skulking through the woods! Goat creatures with long fangs that devour cattle and sheep and even humans when they get the chance! Shadow people who lurk just beyond your range of vision and want to steal your soul! This is all scary stuff!

Or it would be, if you believed in any of it. But you don’t. Or at least, I don’t. In fact, the only thing that comes close to scaring me on Coast-to-Coast AM is the ghost stories. And that’s because I think ghosts just might possibly be real!

Does the story of Jesus’ resurrection shake up your world? Does it overpower you with holy awe? Or is it just something interesting to hear about in church from time to time, almost like something on Coast-to-Coast AM?

But there’s something else about hearing stories of UFOs and hauntings and weird creatures. When you hear that kind of tale, do you come right out and say, "He made that up," or "That’s got to be a lie"? Or do you find yourself thinking, "Well, I don’t believe in UFOs and ghosts and weird creatures, but if that other guy wants to believe in them, that’s fine with me! They don’t exist for me, but maybe they exist for him. And that’s ok."

Sometimes it scares me, that we-- even we who claim to be Christians-- are tempted to put Jesus’ resurrection in the same category as space aliens and hauntings. We say, "Well, that’s what I believe, but if you over there don’t want to believe it, that’s all right for you." If that’s you, be very afraid. From there it’s just a little, little step to denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a fearsome and joyous cosmic physical reality. What’s to prevent you from switching things around? You might as well say, "Well, yes, it was fine for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to be afraid when they encountered the risen Christ. But I’ve got nothing to be afraid of-- because I don’t quite believe it!"

Christian friends, the fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection isn’t something we or the Church made up in our heads that people can choose to believe in it or not! It’s the supreme act of God worked out in human history! Christ’s rising again is a fearsome and joyful thing, to be wholeheartedly accepted and believed-- by everyone, everywhere, and at every time. Not because we feel like it, not because it’s exciting, not because it’s convenient or helps us with our troubles-- but because it’s true.

If you don’t believe in the rising again of our Lord Jesus Christ, if you’re not trusting in His resurrection power to bring you-- yes, you-- defeat over death and life with God forever, you’ve got more to be afraid of than you can ever imagine. You’re in for fear that has nothing whatever to do with joy.

Look with me at our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s all about the awe-inspiring, knee-rattling strength God exercised when He raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated Him at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. It’s about the power and riches and wisdom and eye-opening revelation that mighty act means for us who believe in Christ and His resurrection, who have been made alive with Him.

But what if you don’t believe in Christ’s resurrection or its power? What if the new life in Jesus holds no awe or fear or joy for you? What if you don’t care whether it does or not?

Well then, today brings you no good news. You’re still dead in your transgressions and sins. You’re still a slave to the devil, the ruler of the kingdom of the air. The spirit of Satan, not the Spirit of God, is working in you. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ means nothing to you, if it inspires in you neither fear nor joy, if it’s something that’s fine for other people but doesn’t affect you, you are still an object of wrath and God’s rightful anger still rests upon you.

Yes, God’s rightful anger. God has every right to be angry with us for our disobedience and rebellion and blasphemies against Him. One reason Jesus had to die was to pay the just penalty for our sins. His sacrifice absorbed the righteous wrath of God that was justly directed against our disobedience and turned it away from us. Jesus propitiated the wrath of God on the cross; otherwise, we would each have to stand before God in the judgement and make propitiation for ourselves. And that would mean everlasting death.

If the cross of Christ inspires in you no holy fear; if His resurrection offers you nothing of worshipful awe and terrible joy, it may be because you think you’re worthy and able to stand by yourself before God and turn away His wrath with your own pathetic goodness. But you can’t. None of us can! So I plead with you by the love and grace of Jesus Christ, repent in holy fear and accept His sacrifice for you. Joyfully accept the eternal life He offers you in His resurrection. Your own works cannot save you in the Day of Judgement; if you try it, you’ll learn what it is to experience naked fear in the presence of God-- and it will be too late to know the joy. It’ll be too late for Jesus to say to you, "Do not be afraid." You will have made your choice. If now you reject the holy fear and awesome joy of Christ died and risen for you, on that awful Day you’ll begin to know the unholy and unbearable fear of living without Him forever.

But you whom the Holy Spirit has enlightened, you who live by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you who yearn for the hope to which He has called you--today is the day of boundless good news! You know the fear and the joy of Jesus’ resurrection. And your fear is as blissful as your joy, and your joy is as earthshattering as your fear.

You trust that Jesus died for your sins. You feel the fear of how great your sins are, and you know the joy that they are paid for in full.

You confess that you deserved God’s wrath against you. You shudder to think of the terror of it-- and you rejoice to know that because of Christ, God’s love shines upon you instead.

You believe that Christ the Son of God has defeated death. You tremble in awe at how much mightier the life of God is than the death wielded by Satan, and you exult in blessing, because in Christ, you share that divine life to the full.

You affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, was a true man and also the eternal Son of God. You are overcome with the fearful wonder that God Himself, the Lord of the Universe, supreme over every rule and authority, power and dominion, high in heaven and earth over every title that can be given-- that He, even He would come near to you on this earth to save you-- and you are jubilant, because He has declared you worthy to come close to Him in heaven.

And you believe, even if you can’t quite grasp it, that Jesus in His resurrected, physical, glorified human body even now is seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly realms. You are filled with humble awe that He would do such a thing for humanity-- for you; and you look forward in joy to your own bodily resurrection and perfect union with Him.

But what if-- what if you want to feel all the emotions you should about Jesus’ resurrection, but somehow you can’t? What if you do believe in Him; what if you are trusting Him to take away your sins; what if you do look forward to the day when you will be raised with a body like His; what if you do confess that Jesus’ death and resurrection are real events that make all the difference in the world to everyone who has ever lived in the world and ever will-- but your emotions aren’t equal to it all? What if Easter comes, and Easter goes, and you just can’t seem to feel all the fear and the joy you know the day should bring?

If that’s how it is, Jesus says to you, "Do not be afraid!" Trust in Him, not in your own emotions. Trust in His cross, not in the sensations of your heart. Trust in His empty tomb, not in the ups and downs of your feelings. Believe in the sure and faithful testimony given to you by His prophets, apostles, and evangelists, recorded for you in the Holy Scriptures and written in your heart by His Holy Spirit. Receive the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ extended to you in His Holy Sacraments. Even when you can’t sense His presence in this dark world, claim His salvation, rely on His kindness, and obediently do the good works God has prepared in advance for you to do. For your salvation will never depend on the power of your own feelings. It was won and assured to you by the grace and power of your risen Lord Jesus Christ.

In His good time God your heavenly Father will fill you with the holy fear and eternal joy of the resurrection of His Son. That day will not come perfectly for any of us until we ourselves are transformed into His image and our own bodies share in His glorious resurrection. On that day, our fear will be as blissful as our joy and our joy will be as terrible as our fear. On that day, Jesus Himself will say to us, "Do not be afraid!", all earthly fears will be over and past, and we will live with Him in joyful awe and awe-ful joy forever.
Feast of the Resurrection, 2008

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Faithful Witness

Text: John 11:1-45

SOONER OR LATER, WE’RE ALL DOOMED to be involved in a lawsuit. That’s the way things seem to go these days.

Even if it hasn’t happened to us yet, we know how they work.

There’s the plaintiff, who brings the accusation. He claims to have been hurt or wronged in the case. He says his rights were violated and he wants what’s owed him.

Then there’s the defendant, who has to defend himself against the plaintiff’ accusations.

Both plaintiffs and defendants call witnesses to support their case, and it’s important that those witnesses be faithful and true.

What makes a faithful witness? A faithful witness has to know what really happened, and she has to know it firsthand. A faithful witness has to give honest and true testimony in a clear, forthright manner. He doesn’t get off on tangents or fudge the truth to protect himself or to unjustly favor one side or the other. A faithful witness stays firm and convinced of what she knows. She doesn’t let the attorney for the other side shake her from the truth, with ridicule, threats, or any coercion. She is steadfast and reliable.

Well, you may not realize it, but you and I and all humanity have been involved in a cosmic lawsuit practically since the world was made. Remember how the Lord told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would surely die? God set that choice before our first parents so they could choose to love and obey Him, instead of being robots programmed to be obedient. God felt it was worth the risk that Adam and Eve would disobey; in fact, He decide that even though He knew they would disobey.

But Lucifer, the devil, had a grudge against God from before Time. He’d been the chief archangel, and competed with God for the lordship of heaven. He and his forces were defeated, of course, and thrown down to the earth. Lucifer saw the choice Adam and Eve were given as his chance to get back at God. He insinuated himself into their consciousness with his blandishments and his half-truths, and he corrupted mankind. We were the crown and pinnacle of God’s creation. But he got our first parents to disobey and eat the forbidden fruit, and ever since, we have been slaves to sin, the devil, and death.

But we don’t belong to the devil. Not really. Whatever moral state we’re in, we belong to the Lord our God, who created us. So even from the first sin in the Garden, no, even from before the foundation of the world, our God planned a way for us to escape from the devil’s prison. God called Abraham to serve Him, and out of his loins God brought His chosen people Israel, to be the holy ancestors of the Saviour who was to come. God gave His law and His prophets to call his people again and again away from the devil and into the ways of the Lord. And when the time was right, the Lord sent His eternal Son into the world, everlasting God born as a Man of the virgin Mary. Jesus lived free of the power of inborn sin, but to save us He allowed Himself to suffer the onslaughts of the sins of others. All this was to recover the property that the devil had cheated God out of at the beginning of time.

But the devil cries, "No fair!" He says, "God, you said if Adam and Eve ate that fruit, they’d die. They ate it. They died, and all their descendants die, too. I, Satan, am the Lord of Death. God, all Your creatures belong to me!! I won them fair and square. You’ve got no right to become a man and resist my temptations and break my power over humanity. I accuse you of injustice, God! I’m taking You to court!"

And ever since God’s first promise of a Messiah back in the Garden of Eden, the devil has been pressing his lawsuit of Satan vs. Almighty God and the People of God. Throughout history, Satan has continually been accusing and prosecuting us for our sins. In fact, the word "Satan" means "accuser." He is determined to grasp us as his own and exercise the power of death over us forever.

Our reading from the gospel of John records an episode from that cosmic lawsuit. Satan has pushed the contest hard here. He has brought early death, not to just anyone, but to Lazarus of Bethany, to a dear friend of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. "Take that, Jesus!" the devil is saying. "Your friend is dying! What are you going to do about it?"

And shockingly, Jesus seems to play into the devil’s hands! Jesus had raised people from the dead before: The daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. The son of the widow from the town of Nain. But those people had just passed away. This time, Jesus deliberately waits two days from the time He gets the news of Lazarus’ illness. So by the time Jesus reaches Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four whole days! His body is beginning to corrupt and stink. Lazarus is good and dead. In the devil’s eyes, Jesus didn’t stop this because He couldn’t, which only goes to prove the devil’s case that we are his property and not God’s.

But the devil is arguing ahead of the evidence. Almighty God has witnesses to call, faithful witnesses, who will testify to the power of God in Christ and to His mastery over sin, sickness, death, and the devil.

The first witness is Martha of Bethany, elder sister to Lazarus. She runs out to meet Jesus as He approaches the gates of the village. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!"

She gives true and faithful testimony to the power of Jesus Christ. It’s not hearsay: She had seen firsthand the miracles He performed. She knew that He had divine power over mortal disease. She knew that Jesus loved her brother Lazarus, that He would do what He could to save him.

And Martha testifies further, "But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Martha faithfully witnesses to what she knows of Jesus, that He has a special relationship with God the Father that no man has enjoyed since the days of Abraham and Moses. She knows that nothing will hinder Jesus’ plea to His Father, that Jesus won’t ask God anything that’s out of the Father’s will and God won’t refuse Jesus anything, because Jesus cannot ask in ignorance or sin.

Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. In response, Martha testifies to the faithfulness of God’s promises through His prophets. She says, "I know that he [that is, Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." It’s true she has not yet seen that resurrection, but she has seen the faithfulness of God in her life and in the life of her people the Jews. She acts as a witness to God’s character, over against the accusations of Satan our adversary and God’s.

But, says Jesus, the resurrection is closer than she realizes. The resurrection promised by God is standing there in front of her, in the person of her Friend and Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. "I am the resurrection and the life," says Jesus. "He who believes in me shall live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Yes, Martha does believe it. She believes it and testifies to it before God and all His angels and before Satan and all his demons: "Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." How can she testify to this? Only by the Holy Spirit working in her heart through the word of Christ spoken to her. She testifies to it even though her grief for her brother would argue that it’s empty talk. She holds to her conviction that Christ is the Messiah, even though the devil might be whispering that the real Messiah wouldn’t have let her brother suffer and die. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Martha of Bethany is a faithful witness.

And in her own way, her younger sister Mary is a faithful witness, too. Like Martha, Mary also testifies to Jesus’ power over disease: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." And by her tears she puts herself and her bereavement securely into the hands of her Friend and Lord.

But we’re all human and fallible. Even a faithful witness like Martha can be shaken in her testimony when the horror of Death assaults her. In verse 39, Jesus has come to Lazarus’ tomb. He has commanded, "Take away the stone!" This is where Martha’s faith and Martha’s gut feelings part company. She cries out, "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor! He’s been in there four days!"

The Lord knows our frailty. Even the best of us can falter in the cosmic trial of Satan vs. God Almighty and the People of God. So it’s a good thing God has a star witness to testify in His behalf, a witness who never falters, never fails, never lies, and never shades the truth; a Witness whom Satan cannot accuse of a single sin; a Witness who can turn the tables on the devil every time and crush him in all his claims against us.

That star witness is Jesus Christ Himself. He testifies to His disciples in verse 15 that it is no accident that He waited to come till Lazarus was good and dead; that the death and burial was part of the divine plan to display God’s power over death so they might believe.

In verse 23, again, Jesus testifies to His own identity and purpose in the world: He is the faithful Son of God and Son of Man who brings divine life and rebirth into this dead and decaying world. His is the power that breaks the claim of sin, death, and the devil, that will restore to Almighty God what is rightfully His.

In verse 40, when Martha has cringed at the thought of the smell of her dead brother’s corpse, Jesus testifies that He will back up His previous testimony that He Himself is the resurrection and the life. "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" Martha does believe then, despite Satan’s arguments, and she gives permission for the tomb to be opened.

In verses 41 and 42, Jesus testifies to His relationship with God Almighty, the Father in heaven. He speaks the simple truth about His identity and mission, and He speaks it in love, so the human witnesses around Him may believe in Him, glorify His Father in heaven, and themselves receive the gift of everlasting life. At the same time, Jesus puts all hell on notice that He is coming against their weapon Death with all the power of the almighty Lord and Giver of infinite Life.

But isn’t this just talk? Hey, any nutcase could stand there and claim to reverse death. Jesus needs to do something truly awesome for Him to prove He’s telling the truth about Himself and what He can do.

Jesus does prove it, with these three words: "Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus proves Jesus’ testimony is true by walking out of the tomb, alive, whole, and totally well!

Jesus’ testimony about Himself is faithful and true. He really is the resurrection and the life. He really does take all Satan’s arguments against us and turn them around to work against our ancient foe. Jesus testified to that finally and for all time at the cross on Calvary, where He bore our sins and the sins of all the world and broke the claim of the devil upon us forever. His very cry of "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" shows that our sins were laid upon Him in that dreadful hour, such that God the Father had to turn His face away from His Son. But the love and life of God in Christ triumphed over death, the devil, and sin, so that our Lord was able to say, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit."

By those words He testified to His resurrection triumph to come. And we testify that He will bring us to share in His resurrection victory, too. He is the resurrection and the life, not just for Himself, not just for Lazarus long ago, but for all of us who believe.

Martha and Mary were Christ’s faithful witnesses. We are His faithful witnesses, too, whenever we testify that Jesus Christ has overcome sin and death on the cross and given us new life by His rising from the grave. We are His faithful witnesses when we proclaim that only Jesus Christ brings eternal life and hope and access to the Father in heaven. We are His faithful witnesses when we live according to the new life and trust He has put within us, shining as lights to the world. We are His faithful witnesses when we refuse to be swayed from the testimony of Christ and Him crucified for us, by any power of this world or of hell, no matter what Satan may threaten against us. By Christ’s faithful Word read, heard, and preached, by the comfort of His holy Sacraments, in the power and strength of His Holy Spirit, I charge you: Be the faithful witnesses of your Lord and God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Everlasting Light and Terminal Darkness

Texts: Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

WHENEVER I GO TO PREACH AT a new church, someone always asks, "How many pairs of glasses do you have!?"

And I generally say, "I’m not sure. Three or four with me today?"

Then they ask, "How come?"

Well, it’s got to do with an eye operation I had when I was in seminary. My eyesight got so bad I could hardly see to read. The operation was pretty successful but my eyesight changes during the day. So I keep various strengths of cheap glasses around, so I have the magnification I need when I need it.

But I’ve noticed something. If the light is good, I don’t need my glasses to be quite as strong. If I’ve got good light, sometimes I can read with no glasses on at all.

I’ve noticed something else, especially right after my operation twelve years ago. There was a period of a day or two when I was effectively blind. It wore off, of course. But during that period, I couldn’t stand the light. I had to keep the shades drawn in my seminary dorm room. I couldn’t go outside. I had to keep my eyes shut or wear dark sunglasses if I had to venture anywhere any sort of light might be.

So which is it? For someone who has difficulty seeing, for someone who is blind, is light good, or is it bad?

That’s the problem St. John presents in our gospel reading today. But John isn’t talking about physical light. No, he’s talking about the light of God.

More than that, St. John is talking about God Himself as Light, about Jesus the eternal Son of God as the Light of the World. Do we see Jesus the light of the world as a cure for our spiritual blindness? Or does His light glare on us and make us shut our eyes and turn away? Or worse, do we think we ourselves have all the light we need and consider Jesus actually to be darkness in our lives?

The passage begins, "As he [that is, Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth."

Notice that: Jesus saw the blind man. He didn’t just register him as an object in the landscape and keep on going. The eyes of His mind and His heart saw this poor man, and He stopped, and focussed His attention on him, and so His disciples stopped and actually saw the man, too.

That’s what light does. It shines on people and things. It illuminates them so they can be seen. Jesus the light of the world shone His attention on this blind man so the disciples could see him, too.

But the disciples didn’t quite see, not yet. "Rabbi," they asked, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The way they saw things, tragedy or physical handicap had to be God’s direct punishment for sin.

That’s how we humans reason. Bad things happen to bad people. Or at least, they should. Our moral vision is naturally limited. We think it’s all about individuals getting what they deserve. We don’t envision that when God acts upon this fallen world, He’s operating on a much bigger scale.

So Jesus begins to open His disciples’ eyes and ours, even before He goes to work on the eyes of the man born blind. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," Jesus says, "but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him."

But isn’t that unfair on God’s part? Maybe even cruel? Here’s this man, he’s of age, which means he’s at least twenty years old, probably a lot older. All he can do is beg. He can’t do a man’s work for a man’s wage. He probably suffers torment from the street kids and the Roman soldiers. He can’t read the Torah. His handicap excludes him from the Temple! Come on, Jesus, is God some kind of sadist that He’d make a man suffer like that just He can display His works?

But we’d be blind to see things that way. Evil and darkness are in the world, brothers and sisters. We let them in when our first parents turned from the light of God in the Garden of Eden and we confirm their decision every day. Evil and darkness are all around us, and God has every right to make use of them to display His goodness and light. In fact, whenever God overcomes the present darkness and demonstrates that He is good and He is Light, He opens our eyes to that coming day when His goodness and His light will triumph for us and evil and darkness will be no more.

That was Jesus’ purpose in all His ministry, to reveal the light of God against the backdrop of this dark world. Do you think Jesus preached and healed just to make individuals feel better? Was He a walking motivational seminar and one-man mobile medical clinic? I tell you, no. Every word He spoke, every healing He ministered, went to prove that the light and power of God were breaking into the world and overcoming the powers of darkness and evil. Jesus in the flesh then and Jesus in the Spirit now is the Light of the world. He shines the light of God against the blindness and darkness of this world, that the darkness may flee and God’s character and activity may be seen by all.

On that day with the man born blind, Jesus did the work of the Father who sent Him. He made mud from the dust of the ground and His saliva, put it on the man’s eyes and bade him go wash in the pool of Siloam. Using the dust of the ground, Jesus created sight out of nothing for this man. What does that remind you of? It’s just as it was at the beginning of the world, when He, working as part of the holy and blessed Trinity, made creation out of nothing and made Adam from the dust of the earth.

Only God could do a deed like that. Only God could create sight where there was only blindness and bring light where chaos and darkness have reigned. God is Light, and Jesus displays that He is God when He works and creates as the Light of the World.

St. John tells us that the blind man obeyed. He made his way to the pool of Siloam, he washed, and he came home seeing.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! All the neighbors were struck with awe and wonder and could do nothing but praise the name of God!

Uh, no. The blind man’s eyes were opened, but the neighbors’ eyes were still closed. They couldn’t "see" the miracle Jesus had done. They tried to make out that it just a case of mistaken identity, that the healing never happened at all.

We suffer from the same blindness, don’t we? God works in the world and we can’t see it or we refuse to see it. I’m not talking about being sceptical of claims of modern-day miracles. We should always check such claims against Scripture and what we know of how God works. No, I’m talking about our refusal to see the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the life of the church. When the light of God breaks in, when He begins to give our friends new eyes for His Word, or when He begins to expand the vision of some in the church to new modes and opportunities for ministry, the natural thing is to cover our eyes and say, "Oh, no, that isn’t God at work. We’ve got everything under control here. The Lord can’t possibly be showing us anything new!" We’ve got our own light, we firmly believe. It hurts to open our eyes to the God Who is Light. But until we do, we’re blind men sitting in darkness.

The man who used to be blind can’t deceive himself that way. He knows the facts by personal experience. He was blind, and now he can see. He won’t be budged from the truth, even when the powerful and influential Pharisees get hold of him and grill him without mercy.

In fact, as the Pharisees’ understanding grows darker and more willfully blind, the spiritual eyes of this poor man are opened more and more, until at last he can recognise Jesus and worship Him as Messiah and Lord.

This is the work of God alone. Here is this beggar, blind from birth, never able to read the Law and the Prophets, and he can better see the Light of God at work than all this conclave of scribes and theologians who’d been wearing their eyes out poring over the scrolls since they were teenagers. He knew that God doesn’t listen to sinners. He knew that God listens to the godly person who does God’s will. He knew that it took the creative power of God to open the eyes of someone born blind. Not only did he know it, but when these truths were demonstrated in his own life, he saw them and embraced them.

The Pharisees knew all these things, too. But they couldn’t see it when Jesus displayed His goodness and godliness in the blind man. They had to go on regarding Jesus as a dangerous Sabbath-breaker. As a good-for-nothing of dubious origin-- as they say, "we don’t even know where he comes from"--meaning, "We don’t know who his father was, because we know it wasn’t Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth!" The Pharisees condemn Jesus as a sinner, blaspheming against the name and will of God. Jesus the light of the world is shining right in their faces in the person of this healed man, and they cover their eyes and refuse to see!

This is ironic, and tragic, and sad. The Pharisees knew that God is Light. They should looked at Jesus’ healing of this man and rejoiced that Jesus the Light of the World had come to take away the physical and spiritual blindness of His people. But all they can do is take a giant legal candle snuffer and try to make the light go away. They are the true blind ones, who hide from the light because it hurts their idea of who they are and what they believe God to be. They sit in the darkness and call it "light" and insist theirs is all the light anyone can ever need.

But let’s not throw rocks at the Pharisees. Because we’re all like them in our natural condition. We’re all born spiritually blind. We were all born in the dark. And like the Pharisees, like all of sinful humanity, we all thought we could see. As St. Paul says in Ephesians, "For you were once darkness." We were once dead and asleep with our eyes firmly closed, blocking out the light of God, who is God’s own Son, come into the world. We each of us thought we had the truth about God and what He wants from us and we resented any attempt by anyone to illuminate us to His true character and will.

But now, Paul says, we are Light. How? Because of our great knowledge? Because we’ve worked really hard and fanned into flame some mystical spark of divinity inside ourselves?

No, we are now light in the Lord. Christ has shined upon us. He has opened our eyes. He has brought us out of darkness into His marvellous light. We couldn’t heal ourselves; He healed and saved us out of His own goodness and sovereign love.

So let us live as children of light. Thanks to Him, we’re no longer those who close our eyes against the Light because it hurts us to change. Rather, we’re those whose blindness Christ has healed, who seek His light in His Word and His holy sacraments. Let us fall at the feet of Jesus, the Light of the World and worship Him, bringing forth the fruit of the light, which is goodness, righteousness and truth. For He has illuminated us and made us to be lights for the world. Jesus illuminates us as the sun lights up the moon, because He is God and God is light.

And you know, the time He shone most brightly is when the world seemed the darkest of all.

At the end of this service yet another candle will be put out to symbolize our journey closer to Calvary. And it’s true: Jesus the everlasting light of heaven and earth permitted His light for awhile to be extinguished on the cross. He allowed those who preferred their terminal darkness to the everlasting light of God to put Him to death. He let the prince of darkness for a brief moment believe that at last the darkness had overcome the light.

But the prince of darkness was wrong. The God who is Light can never be overcome, never be extinguished, never finally die. The darkness of the cross gave way to the everlasting light of eternal life for you and for me and for all whom the Lord our God shall call out of the blindness of this darkened world. The darkness of the cross opened the way to the glorious vision of the face of God to all who believe.

Receive the light our Saviour gives. Receive the sight He creates in you. For He Himself is our light. He is our vision. He is our everlasting Lord, and our glorious God. Amen.