Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, March 9, 2008

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Sermon

Let’s play a little game today. I call this game, “Fill in the blanks.” Ready?

Consider the statement of Mary to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Let’s add something to the end of that: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died and I would not ____________________.” Fill in the blank. What would Mary have said?

Now that you’ve had a chance to think of your answer, I imagine that many of them are one of the following:

a) I would not have been left here to struggle on alone.

b) I would not be grieving for him.

c) I would not face an uncertain future without my brother’s protection.

d) I would not now be faced with a loss of faith in your love for me.

It’s fairly certain that Mary’s greeting to Jesus was in the nature of a rebuke. If only Jesus had come sooner, everything would be different. She was totally focused on what this event had done to her, losing sight of the bigger picture.

Martha’s greeting, on the other hand, started out with the exact same sentence, yet she followed it with a strong statement of her faith in Jesus. But even Martha was concentrating on the wrong motives. Jesus is not some sort of on-call miracle worker, there to fix whatever life has thrown at you, like a plumber or electrician.

But that is how we often think of God, isn’t it? Someone to step in and rescue us when the going gets tough, just as it did for Mary and Martha.

But, guess what? It’s not all about you. It’s not all about me. If you’d like to be more factual, we are all about HIM.

When Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill, it’s almost like he was expecting it to happen. He was not worried and he took his time getting there. Why? He says, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it" and “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." The illness was there, not to punish Lazarus for sin or to punish Mary and Martha, but for no other reason than that it was God’s plan for Jesus to show the glory of God through raising Lazarus from the dead.

When Mary and Martha concentrate on what is happening to them personally, they lose sight of what Jesus was there for. Yes, he worked miracles. But the purpose of the miracles was not the miracles themselves, but the reflection of God’s glory so that those beholding them could see and believe, and so be saved. And we, in our Christian lives, often make the same mistake. In our self-centeredness, we concentrate on what God should be doing for us, rather than what we should be doing for God.

Max Lucado, in the book “It’s Not About Me” talks about the error of self-centeredness with the analogy of a symphony orchestra. If every instrumentalist was out to grab their place in the spotlight, the result would be cacophony. He describes it like this:

“Tubas blasting nonstop. Percussionists pounding to get attention. The cellist shoving the flutist out of the center-stage chair. The trumpeter standing atop the conductor’s stool tooting his horn. Sheet music disregarded. Conductor ignored. What do you have but an endless tune-up session!”

Mr. Lucado points out that playing in such a group would not make any musician happy. Yet this is exactly what the world teaches us to do for ourselves every day. He goes on to say:

“No wonder our homes are so noisy, business so stress-filled, government so cutthroat, and harmony so rare. If you think it’s all about you, and I think it’s all about me, we have no hope for a melody.”

Mr. Lucado’s suggestion is one that would have served both Mary and Martha well: stop thinking about what *I* want and concentrate on what *God* wants. But this is very hard to do.

When you think about it, the way that Mary and Martha greeted Jesus on the day of Lazarus’ resurrection is often the way we greet him. We can fill in the blanks differently this time:

“Lord, if you had been here, (fill in the blank) would not have happened.”

“Lord, if you loved me, you would not allow (fill in the blank) to have happened.”

“Lord, if you really are God, you would not let (fill in the blank) to do (fill in the blank) to (fill in the blank.) You would do something to stop that from happening.”

By shifting our attention away from ourselves and towards God, we can see things entirely differently. Mr. Lucado’s conclusion points the way towards doing that. He says:

“The God-centered life works. And it rescues us from a life that doesn’t.

“But how do we make the shift? How can we be bumped off self-center? Attend a seminar, howl at the moon, read a Lucado book? None of these (though the author appreciates that last idea). We move from me-focus to God-focus by pondering him. Witnessing him. Following the counsel of the Apostle Paul: “Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, [we] are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 3:18 KJV).

Beholding him changes us. Couldn’t we use a change? Let’s give it a go. Who knows? We might just discover our place in the universe.”

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A, March 2, 2008

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, `Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, `We see,' your sin remains."

Sermon

The proverb, “There are none so blind as those who will not see” is probably based on the scripture in Matthew 13:13, “Therefore I speak to them in parables: because they seeing
see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.”

In preparing my sermon for this Sunday, I spent some time “googling” this phrase and the results were amusing. Every website that came up in my search had a different spin on it…liberal pundits decrying conservative blindness, conservative pundits decrying liberal blindness, atheists decrying those whose “blind faith” deprives them of using their brains, vegetarians decrying people who could not see the cruelty of eating animals, pro-life people lamenting the blindness of pro-choice people to the killing of babies. Each one of these groups felt that it had the monopoly on sight, that they and only they knew what it meant to see. They have constructed a view of what is right and proper in the world, some correctly, some incorrectly. Anyone who does not agree with them is someone who “will not see”, that is, someone who is blind.

In today’s gospel reading we see a perfect example of this in the Pharisees. The Pharisees had constructed a world view for themselves, a world view in which they were the only ones who could see what was right and wrong. Anyone who did not fit into this world view was rejected and even excommunicated from the synagogue. Above all they were legalists, who believed that their carefully constructed, highly elaborate methods of obeying God’s law were the only way to salvation. They were wrong…they were blind.

When Jesus burst on the scene, plucking grain on the Sabbath and now having the temerity to heal someone on the Sabbath, he definitely did not fit into the world view of the Pharisees. In their view, even if it had not been wrong to heal on the Sabbath, even the act of mixing saliva and dust as Jesus did when he anointed the eyes of the blind man, would have been a violation of levitical law. It was considered “work” and thus not to be done at all on the day that the Lord had specified was to be kept holy.

In addition, the Pharisees considered infirmity, disability and disease to be a sign of divine displeasure. Hence the disciples’ question, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Someone must have done something, or this man would see! Who screwed up? Who can we blame? They wanted to see this infirmity as a consequence of violating levitical law.

One of the remarkable things about Jesus is that he healed so many blind people, yet he did it differently every time. Sometimes he simply touched the eyes of the blind, sometimes he simply spoke words that restored site. This time he chose to obscure the eyes of the blind man with mud, which when it was washed away, would also wash away his blindness. Why did Jesus choose this way over any other?

We can only conclude that it was a message to the Pharisees, that only by washing away the mud that covered their own eyes, would they be able to “see” the truth before them. Sadly, they did not do this. They refused to see our Lord as the Messiah, the light of the world. So they chose to defend their world view because it was comfortable to them; they were used to it, and let’s face it, it let them “win” salvation through their own efforts. And that is always the problem with us, isn’t it? We like to depend on our own efforts to get to heaven, because we simply can’t “let go and let God”.

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, illustrated this very aptly in one of the books in his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, named “The Last Battle”. The great Lion Aslan and the children from our Earth that appear in the stories have come to the end of days and are standing in the New Narnia. At their feet are several dwarves that have rejected belief in Aslan and the Emperor Over The Sea. They have decided that these powerful beings are just stories and that from now on, “The dwarves are for the dwarves.” They will not listen to the children from Earth who attempt to persuade them to open their eyes to the beauty around them. Though they are sitting in paradise, with beautiful trees and flowers around them, yet they can only see the mean stable in which they think they are sitting. To them it is dark and the fragrant trees and flowers only so much hay and horse manure. Because they turn their backs on faith in the creator of their world, they are blind to its true beauty and power.

C.S. Lewis would have known all about being blind to faith. As a teenager he rejected his faith and became an atheist. It was only when he began to rethink what he called “The Christian Myth” that his return to faith began. He said, “I came into Christianity kicking and screaming” and described his last struggle in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. (Lewis 1966)

Two years later, in 1931, Lewis converted to Christianity. Lewis, certainly, understood the proverb “No one is so blind as those who will not see.”

Fortunately for Lewis, he received his spiritual sight back from the Great Healer. Unfortunately, for the Pharisees, they did not choose to see the Messiah standing before them, the Light of the World.

Jesus came to give that light, which is still shining in the world, our world, though some still do not want to see it. We sometimes have trouble seeing it ourselves, when we let the darkness of the world overcome us.

In our prayer book, there is a beautiful “prayer for light” which is given at the beginning of the Order for Evening. I thought it would be appropriate to end with it here, so turn to page 110 in your prayer books:

Let us pray.

(read from Prayer for light)