The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
4th Sunday of Lent
John W. B. Hill and Angela Emerson
1 Samuel 16: 1 - 13; Ephesians 5: 8 - 14; John 9: 1 - 41
This Sunday’s readings remind us that although we are called to be a people of peace, we must not make peace with the evils of power or remain passive (like the blind man’s parents who refused to get involved). God’s people are called to expose the evil of those in power and resist their regimes. This is what we see Samuel doing, relying on the subversive nature of sacrament and symbol (1 Samuel 16: 13). Disciples of Christ are to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but expose them” (Ephesians 5: 11).
The darkness of the man born blind is considered a hopeless problem. The disciples ask, “Lord, who sinned? This man or his parents?” They are as oblivious to the nature of evil as the locals who never considered the man a member of the community; they talk about him, not to him (John 9: 8-9). But this kind of darkness is no problem to Jesus, merely another opportunity for “God's works” to be revealed. His Sabbath mission consists in joining with the Creator whose work (Sabbath notwithstanding) is clearly unfinished (John 5: 17; cf. Genesis 2: 2). So now again, as in the beginning, Jesus makes mud from “the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2: 7) to fashion eyes where there were none; then he sends the man off to wash in the pool called ‘sent’.
This, then, is a story about baptismal illumination, about a relationship with Jesus that enables us to begin seeing the world the way God sees it (1 Samuel 16: 7). Like the woman at the well, the man recognizes his healer only gradually — describing Jesus first as a man, then as a prophet, then as Lord.
This story is also about the way that Jesus, ”the light of the world” (John 9: 5), exposes the evil of the world’s social mechanisms (Ephesians 5: 13). When the man’s darkness has been cured he becomes a member of the community, only to discover that now he is an even greater problem to them — a man ‘healed on the Sabbath.’ Was this an act of God, or an outrage against God?
As the light slowly dawns for him about the problem he has become, the authorities are furiously painting themselves into a dark corner. If they are going to sustain their version of the social order (and thus their power), they cannot accept this new creative action of God in their midst. So they throw the man out of the synagogue.
When ‘John’ wrote this Gospel, his community was struggling with the reality that Jesus had not returned as promised. Perhaps the story of the blind man is a reflection of the experience of that community, struggling in Jesus’ absence to answer questions about something they’ve experienced but do not understand (“I was blind, now I see”).
Preachers try to apply scripture to the circumstances of those they address; so too, ‘John’ took into account the practice in his own day of Jews excluding from their synagogue anyone who confessed Jesus as the Christ (John 9: 34) — a practice probably unknown in the days of Jesus. It was the painful calling of the congregation ‘John’ wrote for to “live as children of the light,” a light which exposes all that is hidden in darkness. They would do this through sacrament and symbol, through “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12: 11).
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, Council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada.
Angela Emerson was a litigation lawyer in Toronto for 31 years; she left the practice in June 2013 to have a saner lifestyle and pursue other interests. Angela obtained her M.Div. from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto in 2009.
Painting: Healing the blind man by Edy-Legrand.