A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 30, 2014
by Kim Baker Glenn, MDiv, MACE
Open the eyes of our hearts Lord so that in seeing you we might love you ever more dearly and follow you ever more nearly. Amen.
Last Sunday, Parson John Miller opened his sermon with a reference to the popular seventies song Day by Day. My opening prayer echoes his sermon that in part reminded us that each day of Lent, indeed each day of life, day by day, is an opportunity for a new journey with Christ. During Lent, that journey is one of introspection and self-reflection. Some might say that it is a journey into the darkness of our souls. It’s dark, not in the sense of evil but in the sense of shutting out the distractions. Sometimes, when we really want to focus on a task at hand, we have to close the curtains, close the door or close the blinds so that whatever is happening outside of our space will not distract us. It is in that sense that the Lenten journey is one of darkness; darkness that is awaiting the brightness of the light of Easter morning.
I wonder if any of you have spent time exploring the darkness inside you. I know I have, and I’ve done it at different pivotal points in my life. The 70s were years of first boyfriends and social cliques for me. So when John Miller introduced Day by Day in his sermon last week it took me right to those deep feelings that I had then. Music has a way of transporting us that way. But today, I invite you this morning to consider a piece of relatively recent music. Today, I’d like you to consider lyrics from a song you may not have even heard before. I first heard this song at a Shrine Mont Retreat for youth. Songwriter and worship leader, Paul Baloche, wrote the words I used this morning in my Prayer of Inspiration. The song begins with these words, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.” The scripture that inspired Mr. Baloche was from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The part that caught his attention reads like this, Paul says to the church in Ephesus, “I pray that the eyes of your heart would be enlightened.” Obviously, Paul didn’t have a literal pair of eyes in mind when he wrote that.
The focus of this morning’s text is blindness. Let’s step back for a moment into the literary world of the biblical writers to see how Paul’s use of words is connected with this scripture from John’s gospel. It’s important for us today to consider how the readings would have been heard when they were new. What did the writer of a particular first or second century text intend for his audience to hear? According to American scholar Elizabeth Evans, the metaphorical use of blindness was widespread in all types of Greco-Roman literature. They used metaphor in their writing then in much the same way as we use it today.They would use features like height, shapes of eyes or ears, skin tone and things like those; things identifiable to a unique person.
For example, in Plato’s Republic he wrote, “You call the dark-skinned “manly” to look at, and the fair-skinned “children of God.” And another example from that same period, a description of Augustus by Suetonius in the biography he wrote, “He had clear, bright eyes, in which he liked to have it thought there was a kind of divine power.” These words that describe familiar human features convey a sense of the character of the one being described.
The way the ancients heard these metaphors was to link the physical characteristic with a corresponding moral characteristic. The study of this practice is called physiognomy. That’s a new word for me and maybe for you, too. But since it is a relatively common literary device in the Bible, it’s important to know. Physiognomists identified the human eye as the “most reliable physical marker.”I don’t know about you, but I tend to evaluate people’s moods and intentions by looking at their eyes. It seems the author of John’s gospel did, too.
In fact, the author of John’s gospel had good reason to choose blindness as the focal feature in this scripture. His audience would have been immediately alerted to the multiple meaning of the beggar’s blindness. He was blind from birth, meaning he had never been able to see and it meant that likely his parents were being punished by God; and he was blind, meaning he could not perceive the truth that Jesus represented; and beyond that, because he was blind his own character was suspect, his moral stature was in question.
Thank goodness, blindness does not have the same moral implications in our 21st century society. At least we have made some social advances. We have grown in compassion and seek to treat people with physical challenges equitably. Maybe that means the Holy Spirit has been at work in the world! Nevertheless, we use the term blindness loosely. My husband might say, “Where are my sunglasses?” And I might respond, “Are you blind? They are on the counter in the kitchen.” But let’s all admit; we can be blind in more serious ways than that – without even meaning to be. It is easy to be blind about the depravity of life in the city’s projects, blind about the injustice of the city’s transportation system. It’s easy because we have to go out of our way, out of our daily routines in order to see it; in order to open our eyes and UN-blind ourselves.
Jesus asked the man who was born blind to go out of his way, out of his routine in order to have his eyes opened, to UN-blind himself. Jesus spat in the mud making a paste and then “spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”” Then the blind man did as he was told. It would have been so much easier to doubt and stay put. But somehow he felt a change in himself. Imagining ourselves as part of the crowd, we watch as he stumbles and gropes his way toward the pool, annoying people as he knocked against them in his path. The result was that after washing away the mask of mud, he could see. The people around him noticed that he could see. But they were doubtful.
Would you have been skeptical about his sudden transformation? Let’s consider how we might react today if we came upon someone we recognized as a blind street corner beggar. Wouldn’t we be skeptical if he suddenly proclaimed that he could see; that someone who supposedly had divine healing powers had brought sight to his previously useless eyes? The people around him were filled with cynicism, reasoning that he had never been blind to begin with. Would we not be tempted to do the same?
The skeptics took the previously blind man to undergo the scrutiny of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were strict keepers of the Jewish law. They were supremely suspicious. They surmised the man who had mudded this man’s eyes had no divine powers to heal. And even if he had managed to give sight to the blind man he had broken a couple of very important rules in the process. The Pharisees were not about to let that pass without notice. They were bound and determined to expose this healer as a sinner and a hoax. They hoped to expose the man who had been blind from birth as a fraud and an unworthy witness.
The irony, of course, is that it is they, the Pharisees, whom Jesus is exposing as sinners and unworthy witnesses to faith. The Gentiles and Jesus followers who would have first heard this story would have picked up on the meaning behind the literary device of physiognomy. They would have linked the physical change that took place with an expected corresponding moral change. The physical change from blind to sighted serves as a mark of transformation. The pitied and shunned formerly blind man is now the one whose experience sets a moral example. It is an example for all who long for truth and hope. The transformation from blindness to sight is the Christian hope for the world. That transformation cannot take place without faith, intention and effort as exhibited by the blind man in this story.
The good news is that Jesus is ready to wash away our blindness, too. Imagine, after the dark day-by-day introspection of Lent, our eyes wake up on Easter morning to all the sweet, emerging colors of spring and our hearts wake up to the extravagant act of God in the resurrection. Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord. In raising Jesus from the tomb, God gave us all the grace-full gift of access to a restored relationship with him. Our sacraments help us to remember that. Through baptism we are reminded just whose we are. Through the Eucharist we offer “ourselves, our souls and our bodies” to God and we receive through the bread and the wine the strength and spirit of Christ into ourselves. Might we receive renewed vision in the process?
The Pharisees in this story thought they had vision but they were actually refusing to see. They were blind to seeing Jesus as the healer; to seeing the possibility that he was God’s son – right in their midst. They questioned whether God’s own son would be so quick to violate Sabbath law. They were unable to see that as God had acted in their world through Abraham and Moses and Jacob that God was now acting in their world again, this time through Jesus. I see it, don’t you? I see and believe that God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is alive and continues to act in this our world. The gospels and the letters of Paul show me how that can be so. But it is the wonderful acts of kindness, charity and grace I see in this world that keep my faith strong. Through people like us, God is acting to overcome evil and injustice.
As we prepare for the sacrament of Eucharist today, let us be reminded that it is through us that the Holy Spirit in Christ works to bring about God’s will. Join me in praying that God will use me and will use each of you to rid our world of spiritual blindness; to bring life to the message of the risen Christ. To God be all the glory. Amen.
 Hartsock, Chad, Sight and Blindness in Luke-Acts, Ó 2008, Brill NV, p59