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.

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