Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent 4 Sunday 30 March 2014

Theme(s): Light and darkness // Blindness and sight // Having eyes but not seeing // Jesus the light of the world // Recognising Jesus

Sentence: I am the light of the world (John 9:5)

Collect:  Heavenly Father,
You see how your children hunger for food, and fellowship, and faith.
Help us to meet one another's needs of body, mind and spirit,
In the love and light of Christ our Saviour. Amen.


1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41


1 Samuel 16:1-13

This reading intrigues as we wonder what brings readings together on this day.The story of the choosing and anointing of David to be king of Israel ties in with the choice of Psalm 23 (the Lord as shepherd who guides the shepherd through the perils and pitfalls of life). Is there a connection with the gospel (which is about the healing of a blind man and ties in with the epistle and its theme of light and darkness)?

(An aside: to try to answer this question with its, to me, non-obvious answer, I thought I would use the commentator's friend, Google, but that proved somewhat fruitless in the time available to me, so what follows is very much my own 'stab in the dark').

In this reading, many things are of interest, because here the greatest king of ancient Israel is chosen. God intervenes in the sad history of Israel under Saul to discern a new and better king. But our special interest is whether and how this reading forms a 'seamless robe' of scriptural text for the fourth Sunday of Lent. From the perspective of the healing of the blind man in John's Gospel which necessarily is also a lesson in healing of spiritual blindness or the inability to see Jesus for Who He Really Is, the choice of this reading makes sense. Samuel, religious leader that he is, seer and prophet by way of office or role in Israel, cannot see with his own eyes whom God has chosen to succeed Saul. However with God's assistance he can see that the fine sons of Jesse brought before him are not God's chosen one. Persistence yields reward. There is one more son, obscure by being the youngest and by being the one furthest away from the scene. David will be king.

Later Jesus will be Messiah, the new king of Israel who will fulfil God's promise to David that his throne will be everlasting (2 Samuel 7). In the gospel reading the question of Messiahship lies at the heart of the controversy told in John 9:1-41.

The choosing of David expresses a great them in the biblical narrative: God is the God of surprises, choosing the unexpected ones to be the decisive leaders of his people (Abraham from nowhere; Jacob rather than Esau; Amos to be a prophet when not a prophet, etc).

Psalm 23

If we associate any psalm with David, it is this psalm! But it is a good choice for a Sunday in Lent. Where is the new David, Jesus heading through these days?

'Even though I walk through the darkest valley ...'

The cross is the darkest valley. But it is not death as final destruction. God will restore Jesus to life.

'he restores my soul (3) ... You prepare a table before me (5) ... I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (6).'

Ephesians 5:8-14

Some people are not keen on binary alternatives: good/bad, black/white, hero/enemy, cops/robbers. The world, it is objected, is a messy place with more shades of grey than division into black/white alternatives suggest. There is a bit of good and bad in each of us, it is said. Action films of the James Bond type with instantly distinguishable goodies and baddies have their place but the more thoughtful films explore the subtle realities of flawed humanity. Thus, it is argued, the great films are more The Shawshank Redemption than Goldfinger.

All this seems a bit lost on Paul in these verses! He launches into a neat division of the world, 'For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light' (8). Our reflection on this from a world keen on shades of grey could start by asking what the big issue is. For Paul the big issue is whether we are on God's side or not, whether we intend to live worthily of the Lord (see 4:1) or not. There are no greys between living for the Lord and living against the Lord or between living in the light or in the darkness or between trying to find out what pleases the Lord and trying not to find out what pleases the Lord (10). The edge here is that 'because of these things [sinful deeds, 5:3-5] the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient' (6).

This is sober talk about a serious matter: how Christians are to live. The summary here could be: live in the light with no compromise with darkness. A further couple of observations are these. First, the temptation to live with compromises with darkness can be fostered by false teachers (6) and Paul says we are not to associate with them (7). Secondly, when Paul writes in v. 12, 'For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly', have we drifted into shamefulness through our culture's obsession with news about sexual immorality (a particular aspect of 'darkness' Paul is concerned about, 3-5).

In relation to our gospel reading, the overall message of the passage about light and darkness connects with the overall theme of the gospel reading in which those with sight cannot see the light of Christ and one who has been blind is enabled to see who Jesus is.

John 9:1-41

All four gospel writers are telling a story about how Jesus died. To make sense the story needs to explain how Jesus died. All four broadly tell the same story: conflict with religious authorities escalated to the point where the authorities determined that Jesus must die and found a way for him to be executed by legal authority. In John's Gospel the conflict has been escalating through chapter 8. In chapter 9 it goes up a notch and (interestingly) does so with some themes common to the other three gospels, particularly conflict over Jesus healing on the Sabbath (9:14-17). Soon, in chapter 11, the conflict will hit 'red alert' with the raising of Lazarus from the dead (an event not reported by the other three gospels). So John 9, today's reading is an important stage in John's account of Jesus' journey to the cross.

The sub-plot in the chapter itself is fairly straightforward: Jesus heals a beggar who was blind from birth (1-12), this is drawn to the attention of 'the Pharisees' (13) who spot a problem with the healing: it has taken place on the sabbath (14-16). Some questions arise around the true nature of the miracle and its implications ('how can a man who is a sinner perform such signs? (16); 'The Jews did not believe that he had been blind' (17)) with the outcome being persecution of the healed man (34). Jesus finds the man and leads him deeper into belief in himself (38) while 'Some of the Pharisees' are told by Jesus that they are trapped in sin as people who claim they can 'see' when in fact they are 'blind' (40-41).

Less straightforward and requiring careful and close reading are all the theological themes being developed in the chapter. For a Sunday with a super-long reading and a need (I presume) to keep the sermon to reasonable length I suggest here that just one theme is focused on. Here are some of the themes:

- who is Jesus? Trace the blind man's responses to Jesus through the story: 'The man called Jesus' (11); 'He is a prophet' (17); 'If this man were not from God, he could do nothing' (33); 'Lord, I believe [that you are the Son of Man]' (38 [35]).

- the nature of suffering: The story starts with a standard explanation of suffering, 'Someone has sinned' and thus the only question worth asking Jesus is whether it was the blind man or his parents who had sinned (1-2). Jesus replies, enigmatically, 'he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him' (3). This can be read in at least two ways. One, seemingly cruel, is 'some are selected for disability and disease so magnificent healings bring glory to God.' This reading does not particularly explain why many are born without disability and avoid diseases. Two is 'the point of suffering is not to ask why it has occurred but to ask what God can make of it.' The second reading coheres with verse 4, 'We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.' Human suffering is an opportunity for God's work to be done in the world.

- becoming and being a disciple (complementary to the question about, 'Who is Jesus?'): the blind-now-seeing man's journey into discipleship begins with bare recognition 'The man called Jesus' (11) and deepens to the point of calling Jesus 'Lord' and believing that Jesus is 'the Son of Man' (35-39), noting that in John's Gospel 'Son of Man' (notwithstanding many debates about what this phrase refers to in other gospels) is about Jesus' heavenly status and journey from heaven to earth (see especially John 3:1-16). The 'believing' of this new disciple is no idle matter: he is persecuted for his belief (34). Note the parallel between the gradual 'seeing' of Jesus which comes to the man and the gradual manner of his healing from blindness (1-11).

- light and darkness (especially verses 4 and 5, and the claim of Jesus repeated from 8:12, 'I am the light of the world').

- true sight and real blindness: the blind man received physical sight and (eventually) spiritual sight; the Pharisees/Jews have physical sight but are blind to who Jesus is, from where/whom he has come and to what God is doing through him (note 40-41).

Finally, note that this chapter is enigmatic in respect of trying to trace the story of John writing this gospel. Verse 22 tells us that 'His parents said this because they were afraid that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.' Many scholars think this comment could only refer to events from about 80 AD onwards when conflict between Jews and Christian Jews over the messianic status of Jesus drove Christians out of the synagogues. Some go further and suggest that both the gospel as a whole and the writing of individual episodes such as John 9 reflect conflict between Jews and Christians at the time of John's composition (late first century AD?). John, it is argued, writes into the old story of Jesus the characteristics of present or recent conflict. Further questions then arise, such as whether John is splicing genuinely old stories about Jesus with new stories about present or recent conflict. If so, in this chapter a possible sign is the way in which 'Pharisees' is used (13, 40) in contrast and comparison to 'the Jews (18, 22)

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