Seeing in the Dark

1 Samuel 6:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

Jeremy Richards

Well, I’m about to try to illuminate this text from John for you. I’m hoping, by the grace of God, to help us “see” it better. But this puts me in a tricky spot, because our Scripture ends with this statement by Jesus: “If you were blind you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Maybe I should just play it safe, say I don’t know what this story’s about, and we can all go home free from sin!

In light of this last statement from Jesus let’s begin today with the recognition that there is much in this passage, in our lives, in Scripture and in our walk with Christ that we don’t see or understand. But this passage seems to be saying that not only is that okay, it’s actually good.

In the novel Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, we read about a unique tradition the Bloch family – Jacob and Julia and their sons Sam, Max, and Benji – have developed over the years. Read from page 11 of Here I Am.

Sometimes we feel like the Bloch family, wandering through a life that is familiar, and yet we’re in the dark. We can fight it, fearing that we might stub a toe or hit a wall nose-first, or we can find rest in our blindness, letting our other senses heighten. We can become attuned to those around us who are also resting in the unknown, in the tranquility of the darkness. Often, it’s not in the day that revelation comes, but in the night, not in knowing but in unknowing.

In this passage we learn that there is nothing to be ashamed of in blindness, both spiritual and physical. In fact, blindness is the place of revelation and healing.

Blindness is where we all start spiritually, and a certain degree of blindness, a certain haziness in our vision, will always be a characteristic of our discipleship. Just as the woman at the well’s vulnerability opened her up to Jesus’ words, so our bad spiritual eye sight creates in us a dependency upon Christ, the one who is the light.

In our story, it’s the man’s blindness that makes him ripe for discipleship. He knows he can’t see, while the Pharisees, on the other hand, believe they have 20/20 vision, both physically and spiritually. While he is still blind, before he’s spoken a word to Jesus, Jesus sends him to the pool of Siloam, which means sent. The man is sent before he’s seen Jesus, before he’s made a confession.

Apparently, being able to know it all, being able to see it all, isn’t a pre-requisite for discipleship. Even after the man’s physical blindness is healed, he remains quite blind to who Jesus is for much of the story. It takes the whole course of the passage for him to progress from seeing Jesus first simply as “the man called Jesus” (v. 11), to a prophet (v. 17), to believing he is “from God” (v. 33), to finally addressing him as Lord and worshiping him (v. 38).

Throughout this story, the man born blind stands in stark contrast to the Pharisees in a variety of ways, but what strikes me most is the difference in their attitude and demeanor, their posture. The Pharisees seem extremely stressed, while the man seems pretty calm. You can hear the frantic tone in the voice of the Pharisees. There are arguments that happen within their group and between them and the man. They ask his parents. They keep asking him what happened, until he eventually gets fed up and says, “I already told you what happened!” They desperately want all this to make sense. They keep thinking that maybe they just missed something, one little fact that will be the key to unlock all this. Surely there’s a reasonable explanation.

The man, on the other hand, seems totally calm, despite the life changing event that has just taken place in him – he’s gone from being blind his whole life to being able to see. One of the funniest parts of this story, and I actually think there’s a lot of humor in this story, is in verse 9, when some of the people are saying “It’s the same guy” and others are saying, “No, it’s just someone who looks like him,” and he’s just sitting there calmly saying, “No, it’s me. I’m the guy who was blind.” But it’s like no one hears him, they’re so caught up in their conversation that they don’t pay attention to him, the one who they’re talking about. It’s like they don’t see him. It’s like they’re blind.

Once they do start talking to him, he maintains a kind of calm, at least in the way I read it. They want to know how it happened, but he just keeps telling them what happened without any further explanation. “The man named Jesus put mud made out of dirt and spit on my eyes (ew), told me to go bath in the pool, I did, and now I can see.” It’s all very matter-of-fact.

The Pharisees then ask him, “Well, who do you think he is? He’s a sinner.”

And the guy’s like, “I don’t know if he’s a sinner. One thing I do know, I didn’t see before. Now I do.” He’s like, “I don’t care who he is, I can see!”

Neither the man, nor the anyone else can explain how Jesus was able to heal him, but the difference is that the everyone else is discontent with not knowing, while the man seems fine with it.

That sounds kind of like Jesus walking out into the wilderness, or Abram and Sarai leaving Haran for the Promised Land, or the woman at the well believing Jesus was the Messiah. All of these people embraced the mystery. All of these people were comfortable with the unknown. They’re all okay with living in the dark for a while, trusting that Jesus will provide whatever light they need.

But the Pharisees in this story, like Nicodemus a few weeks ago, need to know the facts. They need to see it all, put all the pieces together. They aren’t comfortable with their blindness, but in their attempt to see it all, they miss the most important thing: Jesus. They’re so busy trying to figure out how Jesus did this miracle, that they seem to miss the fact that Jesus did the miracle.

Ever since the Enlightenment, much of Western Christianity has been pulled into the Pharisees arguments. We’ve taken the bait. We’ve been asked by our culture how we can believe in someone who is both human and God, how we can believe in the resurrection, how we can put so much trust in a book thousands of years old with scientific and historical inaccuracies throughout it, how we can really believe that in Christ we’ve become “new creations,” how we can use a term like “in Christ,” for that matter. And we have, I think to our detriment, tried to answer on their terms. A whole genre of Christian writings – apologetics – exists to convince the world that things like the incarnation, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. could be proven.

If modern Christianity would have been in the place of this man born blind, we probably would have entered into the arguments with the Pharisees. But this man doesn’t feel the need to do so. First of all, because he knows that he doesn’t know all the answers. He knows there are blindspots. He still hasn’t even seen Jesus yet when they start questioning him. He isn’t sure what to make of “the one they call Jesus.” And second, he doesn’t feel the need to argue with the Pharisees about how this miracle took place because he can see and that’s really all that matters to him. He was one way, and now he’s another way. He has changed, and the change is irrefutable, regardless of whether or not it makes sense, whether or not he knows how it happened.

I went out for doughnuts a few months back with a friend who doesn’t know much at all about organized religion, and they told me how they used to think most religious people were just fanatics, but they’d met more and more educated, critically thinking Christians and that made them interested. Then they told me that I seemed pretty smart, and asked how I could believe in Christianity.

And you know what? Any attempt to make it sound smart sounded dumb. The more intelligent I tried to be, the stupider I was. Because whether or not I’m smart – which is very much up for debate – has absolutely nothing to do with my faith. All I can do is share my story, share my experience. Stories and experiences change people, facts don’t.

While my faith has grown and matured over the years (and it has grown and matured, I’m not advocating for infantile faith), it’s still fundamentally the same faith I had when I told my mother, at the age of 3, standing in the changing room at our local pool, that I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart. It’s still a belief in utter nonsense. God became human (just stop right there. It already doesn’t make sense: the Creator became the creation). That God/human lived a life of love, healing people miraculously  and making disciples. That God/human died at the hands of those in power, but was then raised from the dead. Now that God/human, Jesus, is with us through the power of the Holy Spirit who is also God just as Jesus is God but they aren’t the same except God is still one. There’s also God the Father/Parent. See what happens? Pretty quickly it makes no sense.

All around us people are asking us how all this is possible, and I think we would save ourselves a great headache if we just sat back, took a deep breath, smiled, and calmly said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

That is, in the end, what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? We have somehow, we don’t know how, been changed by this person Jesus, and it will probably look ridiculous to everyone else. In the words of the pastor and professor Anna Carter Florence, speaking on this passage from John, “Conversions are messy. The can even be downright revolting…and most important of all, they never sound convincing…one person’s ecstatic moment with mud usually looks, to the rest of us, like a classic case of self-delusion.”[1]

Barbara Brown Taylor, another minster/professor, tells this story in her book The Preaching Life: Excerpt from The Preaching Life pp. 103-105.

An episcopal priest is the last person I would expect to tell a story like this. I was hesitant to tell this story, because I’m so opposed to this kind of contractual understanding of salvation, as if it’s simply fire insurance: say this prayer and your saved from hell, don’t and you’re going there. These girls’ version of the Gospel is surely over-simplified and reductionist. They said nothing about repentance, discipleship, community, or solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and therefore their Gospel is, I would argue, irresponsible and incomplete.

Jesus says himself in Luke 14, that would-be disciples should count the cost, like a king going out to war or a builder constructing a tower, before making the commitment to follow him.

The early church’s beliefs and practices were more in line with Jesus’ in Luke 14 than these young college girls’ 20 minute, one-and-done kind of salvation. The season we are currently in, Lent, was traditionally a period of preparation for baptism. Would-be Christians spent 40 days of examination, learning, prayer, and fasting before finally entering the waters of baptism. These baptismal candidates knew that they weren’t simply dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s, checking the right boxes to save themselves from eternal damnation, they were beginning a new way of life, a new way of being. The old would be gone, the new would come.

“Conversion,” new life in Christ, discipleship, whatever we may call it, took the early church 40 days of preparation. It took Barbara Brown Taylor 20 minutes.

And yet, it changed her. And yet, Christ was in it somehow. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s simple yet eloquent words, “I may have been fooling around, but Jesus was not. My heart may not have been in it, but Jesus’ was.”

Both Barbara Brown Taylor and this man born blind are interrupted by Jesus. In neither case did they ask for their initial encounter with him, and in both cases he’s rather intrusive. He pushes his way through the door of Barbara Brown Taylor’s dorm room. He smears spit and dirt on the man’s eyes, and the next thing they both know, they’re seeing, not everything, but something. Something new.

Barbara Brown Taylor went on to become a priest, a professor, a best-selling author, and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2014. The man born blind went on to see Jesus Christ, God made flesh, with his very eyes, the ones that had been blind his life, and from there went on to become a disciple.

Undoubtedly, if we were all to share our stories of how Christ reached out and met us, touched our eyes, gave us sight, they would all be different. But they would all be valid. Your story is valid.

Like the man born blind and Barbara Brown Taylor, if we were to share our stories we would probably say little about how it happened, and more about what simply did happen. We were this way, and now we’re this way. We asked him to come in and he came in.

There’s so much we don’t know, about our own lives, about Christ. There’s so much we’re blind to.

And that’s okay.   


[1] Anna Carter Florence, “John 9:1-41” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, ed. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 121.