Lent 4, John 9
Today’s Gospel reading is another of the long conversations, as recorded in John’s Gospel, between Jesus and a person he met during his days of ministry. In chapter three Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a ruler of the people, who came to him by night. In chapter four Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman whom he met while seeking water at a well. Here in chapter nine Jesus speaks to a blind man whom he meets while travelling along the road. In this text, however, the conversation expands to include comments and questions from Jesus’ disciples, the blind man’s parents, and the Pharisees. There’s a lot going on in this text. The conversation is all centered, however, around two words—sin and sight.
As I was pondering this text during my sermon preparations, the phrase “double-cure” came to mind. The man who was blind in this text received his sight—that’s one cure. But as with every miracle of Jesus, there was a second cure taking place as well. As the conversation proceeds, and especially as the conclusion of the text makes clear, the man was also being cured from the consequences of his sin.
And by the way, that phrase “double-cure” is not a direct Biblical quote, but it certainly reflects Biblical theology. It comes instead from a very popular hymn – Rock of Ages. Yes, we will sing it!
We did not read all of chapter nine in our service today, but even in what we read you can still tell that sin is a prominent concern. The topic of sin is brought up immediately through the disciples’ reaction to the blind man. “Who sinned,” they asked Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This question taps into a very common question that we still ask today. When we see someone suffer, we want to know why. We have a sense that sin is involved. But in what way?
The disciples’ options of either the man himself or his parents reflect a debate that was fueled by the scriptures. In Exodus 20, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he also said that he would “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” Thus, Israel believed that the sins of parents affected their children.
However, the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah both recorded a prophecy which said: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jer 31 and Ez 18).
Jesus doesn’t enter this debate. He states that neither the blind man’s sin nor that of his parents was the reason for his blindness. However, Jesus’ answer doesn’t mean that neither Old Testament principle is true. Judging from the teachings of the New Testament, both principles remain true. Sin always has consequences. What we need to realize is that we can’t always trace a particular sin to a particular consequence. In fact, we should say that we “usually” can’t. As Lenski says so well in his classic Lutheran commentary: “Sin works out its painful and distressing results in many ways, which are beyond our ability to trace.”
People, however, like to make connections. Doing so can make them seem clever, or bring a temporary comfort – thinking that justice is being done. People are drawn to things like that video which went viral a while back about a man in a pickup truck who tailgates a woman then passes her while triumphantly displaying his middle finger. Right after that, his truck spins out and he crashes in the ditch. People love it. “Justice!” they say. Or they might use that other label… karma.
As comforting as these labels may be, however, life teaches us that things are actually much more complex. Sometimes that guy in the pickup truck does not spin out and crash. Instead, it’s the teenager who’s just learning to drive that crashes, or the pastor, like my grandfather many years ago, who didn’t see the truck coming as he crossed an intersection on his way to a shut-in call, and died from his injuries. Real life demands a more thoughtful theology than karma.
Sin cannot always be traced. “Were those who died in the tower of Siloam worse sinners than others?” Jesus once asked his disciples. “No, he said.” And then he added: “But unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
An article I read this week had a quote which speaks to this from Bono – the lead singer of U2. The article didn’t give a reference and I didn’t take the time to track it down, but it sounds like something he’d say. Asked about what drives him, what makes him tick, Bono answered: “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between karma and grace.”
Grace is the love of a merciful God who does not hold his people’s sins against them. Grace is the love of Jesus who gave sight to a man born blind, and then continued speaking with him so that he would understand. We’ll hear more about Grace as the rest of this story unfolds, but first let’s say one more thing about sin.
The text makes a big deal about the man being “born” blind. He’s not just a blind man he’s a man who was born that way. In light of this, the disciples’ question about whose sin caused his blindness seems a little strange, since one of the options, his own sin, shouldn’t have been able to affect the way he was born. How can his sin cause his blindness if he hasn’t been born yet? He hasn’t committed any sin yet? Or had he?
While we have evidence that some rabbis taught the possibility of sinning even in the womb, the other possible understanding, and the one the church holds to, is that sin was naturally passed along to him. We call this the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine is laid out for us very clearly in passages such as Psalm 51:5 – “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity; in sin did my mother conceive me.”
This idea of original sin shows up two other places in our text as well. In verse 16, some of the Pharisees say: “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” They are not pointing to any particular sin of Jesus, they simply assume that because he is a man like them he is sinful. Likewise, later in the text, the Pharisees try to rebuff the testimony of the man who was formerly blind by saying: “You were born in utter sin, and you would teach us?”
Being born blind, this text implies, is like being born into sin. John 9 is one of many passages in scripture that push us toward the teaching of original sin. Where the teaching of original sin is denied, the full effects of sin cannot be appreciated. The doctrine of original sin pushes us toward our knees. And it keeps us from deceiving ourselves and saying we have no sin. And it explains this broken world, in which people are sometimes born without sight, and in which countless other unjust and unexplained occurrences take place.
The fault for such brokenness does not need to be traced to individual sins. Nor does it need to be assigned to God, as some people do. Nor should it be simply ignored, like some so-called churches do—including one I was reading about recently which says very bluntly in its statement of faith: “We believe humankind is originally blessed and inherently good, which allows God to fully express God’s realm through us and as us.”
Jesus and the scriptures take sin seriously. They tell us to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. They tell us that the wages of sin is death.
But, they also tell us that God has an answer to sin.
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, the conversation in this text is all centered around two words—sin and sight. God’s answer to sin is to restore our sight.
This means, first of all, that God moves us to acknowledge our sin as an essential step toward salvation.
In our text, the particular sins of the man born blind, or those of his parents, was not the issue to Jesus. Rather, Jesus was, as he always is, concerned about the sin of the whole world. Therefore, he says, at the text’s conclusion, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
While this sounds confusing at first, this is just another version of Jesus’ so-called “great reversal” from other texts, where he says things such as “the last shall be first, and the first last.” Here it means that those who acknowledge their disability—which is their sin and their lack of a means to save themselves—will be healed by Jesus who is full of grace. But those who think they see just fine—meaning those who feel they have no need for a Savior—will be lost in their blindness.
Jesus is all about restoring sight. In the beginning of the text Jesus restores a man’s eyes so that he can see. By the end of the text Jesus has opened the man’s heart and mind to see his Savior. “Lord, I believe,” said the man healed by Jesus. Believing is seeing. Believing is trusting the grace of God. Or as Bono said, in finishing up the earlier quote: “I’m holding out for grace; I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.”
It was never God’s plan that man fall into sin. It was never God’s intention that there would be illness and death, or that men would be born blind. And yet, in the mystery of his grace, in the Son of Man, slain as the Lamb of God, our Lord took a fallen situation and not only restored it, but made it better than it ever was. By the mystery of the incarnation and the glory of the cross we have come to see God as we never could before—face to face, in full and sacrificial love. A paradise better than Eden awaits.
“Be of sin the double cure” we sing in the hymn. As I shared earlier, I first thought of the phrase in light of the blind man’s physical and spiritual cure. But it turns out that’s not what the hymn is actually saying. Physical cure is nice, and we pray for it often, but there’s a greater cure which God offers.
“Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.” A cure from the guilt of sin, and a cure from the power of sin—that’s the double cure. The cure from our guilt speaks to our justification. God no longer holds our sins against us. The cure from sin’s power speaks to our sanctification. With sin’s power broken we are enabled to do better.
John 9 concludes with Jesus telling the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” They would not acknowledge their need for a Savior. And they would not believe in Jesus as the great healer of men.
We who trust Jesus as our Savior can be sure that we are seeing God’s salvation. Both the guilt and the power of sin have been removed.
This double cure of our sin is seen very clearly in one of the declarations of forgiveness in our liturgy. Listen closely as we close the sermon with these words: “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ he gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them his Holy Spirit. May the Lord, who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.