On the fourth Sunday in Lent, we hear from Scripture two stories about the people God chooses. In our Scripture from 1 Samuel, we hear the story of David’s anointing by Saul; in our Gospel, we encounter the familiar story of the blind man who is healed by Jesus, whose words have been immortalized in the classic hymn, Amazing Grace.
What is it about sorting people out, choosing them for one thing or another, that we find so interesting?
I can’t help but think about Harry Potter when I read these stories—in particular, the sorting ceremony. Every student gathers in the great hall at Hogwarts and, one by one, walks up to a stool on which sits a grumpy old hat. Each kid puts on the hat, and the hat tells them where they belong. And it is pretty clear, some “houses” are better than others—nobody wants to be a Hufflepuff. And only dark and creepy types want to be Slytherin. But what is interesting is that all of this happens in the very beginning of each student’s time at the school. Before any of these kids have a chance to really know who they are, they are sorted into “houses” that are supposed to define something essential about them. Griffindor, Slytherin, the hat looks into your heart, and it sees what it sees.
I feel like something to that effect is going on in our lesson from 1 Samuel this morning. For a little context, you have to understand that the prophet Samuel and King Saul have just had a major falling out. Saul had gone to battle against the Amalekites, who have been Israel’s enemies since the time of Moses, and God tells him that he will bless him with victory as long as he wipes out every trace of the conquered. And Saul wins. Epically. He even captures the king alive. But Saul balks—he feels as though it is poor sportsmanship to kill a captured king, as there are a lot of tasty looking sheep that could use a new shepherd. Next thing you know, Samuel shows up, and according to the Hebrew, he says to Saul “what is that “meh” I hear?” It’s as though mom just walked home in the middle of your house party. Samuel accuses Saul of failing to obey God, hews the Amalekite king to pieces, and announces that Saul is no longer the rightful king. Oh, and he never sees him again, alive.
You don’t mess with the messenger of God, is pretty much the lesson here. And so at the beginning of our scripture this morning, you have to understand that Samuel has become a loose cannon in the kingdom, and treason is in the air. He is grieving over the mistake he made in choosing Saul as king, when suddenly God informs him that it is time to anoint a new one, one whose heart is more in line with God’s plans. And so our story unfolds: Samuel comes to town under the pretense that he is there to sacrifice, and the elders trembling in the streets. He invites Jesse of the tribe of Benjamin to the party, along with his sons. He eyes the boys, and at first glance he assumes the tall, handsome one must be the king, but God reminds him: Listen to me—I will guide your choice. I am looking at the heart, and nothing else matters. Don’t trust what your eyes are telling you.
Ultimately, we know that God chooses David, who isn’t even there—he’s out tending the sheep. Turns out he is pretty good looking, but he is also a kid, the youngest in the family. It will be a long while before David ascends to his throne, but the message is clear: God isn’t looking for a king that looks the part—God’s choosing is based on something deeper, something within the heart. God’s vision isn’t like our own.
Keep that in mind in our Gospel lesson today, because again, we have a story about seeing and hearing.
In the Gospel lesson, we aren’t choosing a king. Instead, Jesus is walking with his disciples, when they see a blind man. The disciples, it turns out, are the kind of people who think that if you talk about a blind person, they can’t hear you—as though this man’s ears didn’t work either. In other words, they are kind of rude. And they ask Jesus the following question: whose fault is it that this man is blind
Strange question, isn’t it? The disciples tend to be, well, a little dumb according to the Gospel of John. They are constantly acting like buffoons, missing the point or misunderstanding Jesus. Over the past few chapters of John’s Gospel, they have watched Nicodemus struggle with being born again, and they have watched a Samaritan woman receive living water, and still they just don’t get it. They confuse conditions on the ground with a person’s spiritual states. Blindness to them implies a spiritual deficit. They seem to have missed Jesus’ teaching last week that he came for the whole world, and especially the vulnerable.
But Jesus isn’t interested in assigning blame. Instead, he changes the conversation. The NRSV is a little murky on the translation. So I want you to look at verse 3, and that place where you see the phrase “this man was born blind so that God’s glory could be revealed through him,” and I want you to strike it from your memory. The greek actually says something that would more accurately be translated as the following:
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must do the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.
Do you hear that? According to Jesus, sin has nothing to do with this man’s blindness. And yet, God’s glory can be revealed in how we respond to his suffering—in doing so, we can do God’s work. The disciples were so used to thinking of poor, marginalized people as broken and sinful that it never occurred to them that in God’s eyes, they held just as much value as anyone else. Instead, like Jesse who left his youngest son David at home, they had relegated this man to the gutter, rendered him invisible, unworthy of community.
But not Jesus.
Jesus turns to this invisible man, and like Samuel, anoints him with sight. Proclaiming him valuable to God’s Kingdom, Jesus offers this man the one thing that everyone else seems to lack: the ability to see.
What follows is a comical chaos of confusion: people who had ignored this man in his blindness “see” him for the first time, but they don’t recognize him. Religious authorities are called in and immediately suspect the man may have been faking his blindness. His parents want nothing to do with it—“he’s ours alright, but he’s a grownup. Talk to him yourself.”
In the center of it all is the blind man. Notice something: the more that people push him, the more the people deny and discount him, the more frustrated he becomes. Over the course of his questioning, he is transformed from one who claims to not know anything, to proclaiming Jesus a prophet, and finally to confessing him as the Messiah, saying “I believe.” It’s as though the entire experience of the world’s confusion finally convinces him of the truth Jesus had revealed in this miracle: that this man is valuable in God’s sight. That his voice has power. He has been chosen and beloved by the Creator. And he can tell the world of what God has done in him.
If there is one thing that we can learn from these stories of God’s choosing, I hope it is this: that in God’s Kingdom, each and every one of us is seen and loved in Christ. We all have value in the eyes of our Creator. None of us is invisible, or useless, or outside of God’s grace. We weren’t before Jesus touched us, and we certainly aren’t now.
Coming to an understanding of this is sort of like putting on corrective spiritual eyewear. Do any of you bespectacled folks remember what it was like to wear glasses for the first time? It’s as though everything changes. Our picture of the world is profoundly altered, and it is hard to go back to not seeing clearly. I remember, for myself, that I couldn’t help it—I had to tell everyone in my family about all the things that I could see now that I had glasses.
This is the hope God has for us—that as we come to know that God has chosen and sought us out, we will be compelled to share our story. Or using another word, that we, like the blind man, will feel empowered to testify to what God has done in our lives.
I mentioned earlier that Jesus isn’t interested in sorting people into sinful and sinless. But Jesus is interested in a different kind of sorting: that of those who see and those who don’t, or won’t. Will we open our eyes to the light of the world, or will we shut our eyes to what Jesus is doing? Will we choose to be right, or choose to be changed? The blind man chose light, and in him we encounter the love of Christ. What might God be doing to open our vision right here in Ivyland?