(Excerpted from a sermon given on the fourth Sunday in Lent, 2023)
Expectations vs. Reality
I recently met someone for the first time in person who I had previously conversed with only through email. I imagine this is a regular occurrence for many of us in the working world when we make a contact online and eventually there is a need to meet face-to-face. I bring this up because of the game we play with ourselves whenever we meet someone for the first time. Who doesn’t first try to imagine in his or her head what this person is going to look like?
Obviously, I played this game in my recent encounter. Would the person be tall or short? About how old is this person? Does he wear glasses? What kind of clothes would the person be wearing? What does his voice sound like?
We like to do this with movie adaptations of books, too. I can remember the reaction way back when the first Harry Potter movie came out. The books had been around long enough before the movie, and of course they were extremely popular, that many people in their reading and re-reading of J.K. Rowling’s books had each formulated in their minds what the characters looked and sounded like. This was especially true for the imposing character Hagrid. I remember friends being surprised, if not disappointed, when their expectations did not align with reality.
Now, back we go to real-life meetings. We meet a person for the first time, and like the reveal on a game show, we get to see just how close our guess really was. Do we ever get close with our guesses? I would say more often than not we get it wrong, if not very wrong. For this reason, I was surprised to find in my meeting that the kind person across from me was remarkably close to the person I had in my head.
However, do we ever just stop at appearances when we meet someone? No, appearances are always the starting point. It is in our human nature to take our judgements one step further into the realm of a person’s character. To our shame, we play the same game as we did before with the person’s looks. Automatically and almost instantaneously, when we see someone, we make a judgement about who they are. We take all the inputs from before – shape, size, clothing, voice, smell – and we extrapolate that into whether this is a “good” or “bad” person.
What do we imagine the “good” people to look like? Well dressed, smells good, soothing voice, wealthy, good physical health, funny. And the supposedly “bad” people? Unkempt, dirty, smelly, annoying voice, unattractive – all things which go against the image we may have had in our heads. But if we are bad judges of people’s appearances, our we any better judges of character? Absolutely not – we are even worse. Of course, is this not exactly the premise for God’s plan of salvation? As Saint Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”1 Corinthians 1:27-29
The Anointing of King David
This dichotomy between our vision and God’s vision is at the heart of our lectionary readings for the fourth Sunday in Lent. The LORD states it clearly in our Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel 16: “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Remember that the LORD has just rejected Saul from being king over Israel, because he rejected the word of the LORD. Israel was without a king, and God tells Samuel that he has chosen a king from among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite. So, Samuel travels to Bethlehem and arranges a sacrifice to the LORD, essentially setting up an interview with all the sons of Jesse. And who does Samuel expect to be anointed king? None other than Jesse’s eldest son Eliab, for that was Jewish tradition! Not to mention that he was tall and good looking. But the LORD has informed Samuel that Jesse’s youngest son, David, the least likely, is His choice to be king of Israel.
David, though the text describes him as handsome, is not described like a king. Rather, he looks more like a farm boy. David was the youngest, and they sent for him out in the fields, and “he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Samuel 16:12). That word “ruddy” means he had a reddish complexion, resulting from outdoor life. Perhaps his hair was messy, and he had dirt on his skin and under his fingernails. David appeared the opposite of the prized eldest son. Yet he was the one to be anointed as King of Israel.
Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind
The LORD sees not as man sees. The account of the man born blind in John chapter 9 reveals our own blindness not only with regard to looks, but also with regard to circumstances. The text begins with the disciples (not even the Pharisees) jumping right to conclusions about the blind man. Jesus and the disciples walk by the blind man, and the first thing they ask is not how he got there, not how they might help him, but “who sinned? This man or his parents?” It was a common belief of ancient Judaism that suffering could always be traced to someone’s sin. “This man was born blind? Then he or his parents must have done something really bad!”
Yet one of the major points Jesus makes in the encounter is this: Sometimes, bad things just happen. We live in a broken and fallen world, and more often than not we fall victim to that reality. Jesus makes a second transformational statement: God can, in His providence, use our broken circumstances for a greater purpose in His plan of salvation.
Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
What Jesus does next reveals tremendous faith on the part of the blind man. Jesus spits on the ground, forming mud with his saliva, and anoints the man’s eyes with the mud. I like how some translations use the word “clay,” not because it’s less gross, but because it calls us back to God’s creative work in the Garden of Eden, forming Adam from the dust, like clay in the hands of a potter. Jesus, the Son of God, possesses this same power to make each of us a new creation in the midst of our suffering.
Keep in mind that the blind man does not know who Jesus is. Obviously, he cannot see Jesus. But Jesus tells him, after the anointing, to go and wash in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent) – the wordplay symbolizing how Jesus was sent by the Father. What trust this man had to take Jesus at his word! The blind man had no reason to trust Jesus; Jesus did not even tell him that he would be healed. He told him only to go and wash, which would have been standard Jewish ritual. But the man went, and he washed in the pool and regained his sight.
Naturally, the man is elated, and goes and tells everyone what has happened to him. In doing so, the man who was physically blind reveals the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not want to believe it, but the miracle was undeniable.
“He looks like the man who was blind before, but he is clearly not blind. Are we sure this is the same guy?” The so-called neighbors asked.
“Yes, I am the man!” He would reply. “I was blind my whole life and now I can see!” If these people were true neighbors, would they not rejoice with the man at this miracle? It was clear the miracle was true – sight is not a thing you can fake! Instead, the people were preoccupied with the fact that the image in their heads did not match reality. Their preconceived notion was that this man was a sinner, therefore he was blind. And because God does not listen to sinners, there was no way He would answer a prayer to heal him.
Instead, the so-called neighbors need to interrogate the man. “So, you can really see, huh? Who healed you then?” They asked.
“This man called Jesus healed me. He rubbed mud on my eyes and told me to wash in the pool, and now I can see!”
“You say Jesus healed you? Oh, that’s no good. Not good at all.” Great neighbors! After interrogating the man, rather than rejoice with him, they drag him off to the temple to be questioned by the Pharisees.
The full text describes how the Pharisees try to condemn Jesus, and by extension the man, for breaking the Sabbath. It would have broken the Sabbath rules that to knead the clay and heal the man, according to the Pharisees. “How could such a man be from God?” They asked.
Still unsure of the situation, the Pharisees call in the man’s parents. And even his parents throw the man under the bus!
“Was your son born blind?” They asked. “Yes,” the parents respond.
“Do you know how your son was healed?” “Nope, we have no idea. He’s an adult, ask him yourself.” The text explains that the parents would not defend their son because they feared the Pharisees; anyone who said Jesus was the Messiah would be excommunicated. They feared the rejection of men more than the LORD.
So, the Pharisees call in the man once more, and demand that he condemn Jesus. Here our text picks up, and with remarkable eloquence the man defends Jesus:
“Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:32-33).
Remember that the only person in the Old Testament who was healed of blindness was Tobit, in a text of the Apocrypha – and he was not born blind. The Pharisees had heard enough. Rather than challenge their assumptions of suffering and sin, and recognize Jesus as the Messiah, they cast out the man in excommunication.
Finally, Jesus hears that the man was cast out of the temple, and his response so reflects the nature of God. What does Jesus do when he hears the news? He goes and finds the man. Jesus could have easily continued on his journey; the man was healed, after all. But in order to disciple someone in the faith, do we not have to search after them, rather than wait for them to find us? This is exactly what Jesus does. He comes to meet us in the midst of our troubles to remind us of who he is, and that he is there for us.
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asked. The man answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus replied, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you” (John 9:35-37).
Notice that this would be the first time the man saw Jesus with his own two eyes, but he had been faithful even before this moment. The Jesus who this man knew in his heart and his mind was the same as the man who now stood before him. “He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (John 9:38).
Jesus and the man born blind were judged by the Pharisees, but it was they who were judged by the Light of the World and shown to be blind.
Jesus Sees and Understands Our Present Suffering
There is so much for us to learn from our readings on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The LORD sees not as we see, whether appearance, or character, or the circumstances of life. And while there is correction for us, understanding that Jesus, the Light of the World, challenges our spiritual blindness, and invites us “to discern what is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul writes in Ephesians 5:10, there is also great comfort offered to us. In light of the challenges facing our congregation at present, God invites us to remember that He sees not as we see.
The recent resignation of our beloved brother in Christ, The Rev. Mark Galloway, from his role as an Assisting Presbyter of Holy Communion Anglican Church, has great emotional and logistical impact on our life as a congregation. Emotional, because of our great affection and gratitude for his tireless work in the ministry of Word and Sacrament for us the last three years, and for others in the decades before that, challenging us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Logistical, because his resignation marks the end of one chapter in our ministry as the Priesthood of Believers, and the beginning of a new chapter, one yet unknown, which is where our anxieties so often reside.
When we face hardships in life, when difficulties fall in our lap, our temptation (like the disciples in our Gospel narrative) is to immediately question where we went wrong. But just as Jesus met the man born blind, not to condemn him but to open the eyes of his heart, Jesus is here to meet us as well. Our present situation does not match the picture which we had formed in our heads; yet, Jesus is here, by His spirit and the Grace given to us in the Sacraments, to remind us that God will use our lives “that the works of God might be displayed in [us]” (John 9:3).
We may not be able to see all which God is doing to redeem our present difficulties, but we can see His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, standing before us, ready to sustain us, and asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” My dear brothers and sisters, we have seen Him; He is here, and He is able to keep us from falling and bring us to his glorious presence, without fault and with great joy. May we respond like the man born blind, saying, “Lord, I believe.” Amen.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail