All the sermons in this short series are posted here. All are based on the lectionary texts from the Gospel of John. If more sermons are added they will be posted here. Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
The Decisions of Discipleship I: “You must be born from above.”
This morning I am beginning a short series called, “the Decisions of Discipleship.”
In the third chapter of John’s gospel, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus by night and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus knew that Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel, therefore he knew Nicodemus kept the commandments, and offered all the right sacrifices, and gave tithes of all he had. Jesus knew that Nicodemus was about as devout as it has been hitherto possible for a man to be, but Jesus knew, too, that Nicodemus was seeking something more than all his devout religious observance has given him. So Jesus challenged Nicodemus to the most dynamic religious experience available to anyone. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.”
Now you are confused by my use of the word anothen, which is, Greek. There was confusion in the original conversation as presented, too. Anothen can be used several different ways.
According to the NRSV Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen/from above.”
Yet Nicodemus heard, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen/anew/again.” We know that Nicodemus heard it this way, because, in verse 4, he responds,“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
And we know that Jesus meant, “from above,” because he continues:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Obviously Jesus is talking about a second birth, and it is not a second birth of the flesh, which is impossible for a human being; but a second birth of the Spirit which is perfectly possible with God, because all things are possible with God.
This is quite an invitation on the part of Jesus, so how does Nicodemus respond? That is harder to pin down than you might expect. Nicodemus appears three times in the Fourth Gospel, and not once does he appear as a full-fledged disciple. Nicodemus first appears here, in John 3, after which he melts back into the night from whence he came. Then, in chapter 7 of the same gospel, Nicodemus makes a 2nd appearance, wherein he is at best a neutral. When people begin to speak against Jesus more vehemently, Nicodemus dares to argue against other Pharisees that Jesus should be given a fair hearing. Finally, in chapter 19 of the same gospel, Nicodemus makes a third appearance, and he is in the company of another familiar name. In John 19:38 we read that after the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, went to Pilate and asked that he might take away the body ofJesus. And Pilate gave him permission to do so. So Joseph came and took away the body, and Nicodemus came also, bringing with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes that weighed about a hundred pounds. And the two men took the body of Jesus, and anointed and bound it, according to the burial customs of the Jews, and then they carried the body to a nearby garden, and placed it in a new tomb where no one had ever been laid.
Though we never read that Nicodemus has become a disciple, we do read that he has done some very disciple like things. Let me mention three.
First, Nicodemus is keeping company with Joseph, who is a disciple in secret, for fear of the Jews. It is easy to imagine that the two men have that in common. Of course, people do not remain disciples in secret for long, for either “the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy.” Nicodemus is about to be turned out of the closet.
Second, if Nicodemus is not yet converted in his heart, he is at least converted in his pocket book, for he spends considerable money in preparing the body of Jesus for burial. I have known many people who claim to be converted in the heart, who show no evidence of conversion in the pocketbook. I think that Nicodemus would tell them that they are fooling themselves.
Finally, it is no small thing for a Jew of that time, especially a Pharisee like Nicodemus, to do for the dead body of someone who was not a relative, what Nicodemus did for Jesus. It was a beautiful thing, and I once saw something like it. I happened by the house of a friend one morning to discoverthat he had died alone, sometime early in the night. The morning after, his family had come by the house and discovered his body, and they had gathered where he had fallen to wash his body, and dress it, and prepare it for the arrival of the EMT’s. It was a holy moment, and as I watched, I found myself thinking of Nicodemus and Joseph who did the same for Jesus himself and that was certainly a disciple-like thing.
So, if Nicodemus did all these disciple like things, why do we not read that he is a disciple of Jesus? I think the answer is found in verse 5. There Jesus said:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Scholars tell us that verse five is an anachronism—a thing out of time, for it point forward, beyond the ministry of Jesus, to the time of the church, and it describes the relationship between the Spirit and the water of baptism. It is not as some suppose, a reference to the “water of birth,” for water and Spirit are governed by a single preposition.
For John, as for us, baptism in water is the sign and seal of baptism in the Spirit. The church performs water baptism in the faith that God will bestow the Spirit. Thus Nicodemus does not receive the promised spiritual birth because it is not yet possible for him. It is not possible because baptism is still in the future, and so is the bestowal of the Spirit that baptism symbolizes.
In John 7:37f, Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” And the author of the gospel immediately adds, “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. ”
In the context of John’s gospel, the glorification of Jesus takes place when Jesus is lifted up on his cross and immediately begins to draw all people to himself. Jesus had to fix the personality of the Spirit with his life, ministry, death, and resurrection before the Spirit could be given. In John’s gospel the Spirit is not given until the risen Christ breathes upon his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit!,” or, as some translations reed, “Take the Holy Spirit!” (John 20:22)
Let me say a word about time in four Gospel. In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, time proceeds in linear fashion The center of redemption past is Christ on his cross, dying in our place. The center of redemption present is the church presenting the Good News that Jesus died for our sins, then rose again to give us a future and a hope. The center of redemption future is Christ coming back for this church on earth; or, our being called home to him. In John’s Gospel, linear time is not nearly so important. John writes as if there is one big, eternal NOW. And NOW consist of all that is NOW, and all that is PAST, and all that is FUTURE. Thus when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus and says, “Very, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” it is not just a invitation Jesus once made to a man who lived and died in the first Christian century. It is a invitation that Jesus still makes, and will always make, not just to Nicodemus, but and to us, but to all those who come after us. Jesus still says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Now all this is wonderful stuff. It is a shame that the new birth has gotten such a bad name. Just two weeks ago, I talked to a pastor whose safety had been threatened by a bitter, pistol packin’ neighbor. The man told the pastor that both he and his congregation need to “get born-again” before it was too late. What the man really wanted, was for the church to roll over, and give him all the concessions he was demanding of them. That man may be a Christian, I cannot judge him; but I do not think the Spirit that controls this man is the Spirit whose personality was fixed byJesus.
Likewise, several times over the years, I have watched films of snake-handlers at worship. In one film, the pastor gave several of the attractive women in the congregation what he called “the kiss of peace,” while their husbands looked on helplessly. Then he took out serpents and handled them as a sign that he had been “born again,” and he invited the members of his congregation to handle the snakes so they, too, could be sure they had been “born again.” That church may be a Christian Church, but I do not think that the Spirit of excess that drives their primitive worship is the Spirit whose personality was fixed by Jesus. By the text that they build their doctrine upon is the long ending of Mark, which appear only in inferior manuscripts. It was probably added by a copyists who was not happy with the short ending of Mark.
The church I grew up in used to boil down the whole Christian life to a single experience. If you had not been born again, according to their definition, you had nothing. If you had been born again, according to their standard, you had everything. I loved those people, and they showed me Jesus, but I was never comfortable with the self-satisfied attitude of some. My Sunday school teacher, was recognized as a saint, but in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he made me ashamed to be a white Christian. I believe he was a Christian, but I am equally sure that the spirit that ruled his teaching, was the not the Spirit whose personality was fixed by Jesus.
The new birth has gotten a bad name. That said, I still believe it represents the most fundamental miracle of the Christian faith. Let me share my own experience.
I grew up in a pastor’s home. I was baptized as an infant, and confirmed when I was fifteen. As an older teen, and as a young adult, I sometimes walked on the wild side, but I considered myself a Christian. Then, something happened. Like Nicodemus, I knew that something in my religion was lacking. I sought God in the scripture, and I will not tell the whole story, but I did find exactly what I needed. In the book of James, I read how a wise man does not go into a certain city and buy and sell and get gain, but “if God wills,” he will go into such and such a city, and buy and sell and get gain. That phrase, “if God wills…” struck me to the quick. I called myself a Christian, but I had never really thought about God’s will for my life. For a week or more, that phrase haunted me. by day and by night. One night, I could stand it no longer, so I got out of bed, went to the living room of my apartment,knelt down, and extended my finger into the air like the Adam of Michael Angelo’s creation scene. I said, “O.K., God, if you are real, just touch the tip of my finger, and I will do whatever you want me to do.” There was no touch, no shaking of the foundations, no bursting vision of light. Yet, in that awkward position, I felt closer to God than ever before, so I said, “O.K., God, I will do it your way. I will put my faith in your son, Jesus Christ.” As our text declares, “…whoever believes in him, will not perish, but have everlasting life.”
For years, I continued to insist that there was no touch. Since I preach “justification by faith,” I did not think it odd. Then one day I was comparing two parallel texts. In Luke 11:20 Jesus says, “..if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In Matthew 12:28 Jesus says, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Did you get that? The finger of God is the Spirit of God. God did touch me, he touched by by his Spirit. I did not recognize the touch when it came, but when I look back across my life to that night, I cannot deny it.
Now, I do not know if your experience is like mine. It does not need to be. As Jesus said, “the Wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” Zinzendorf used to say that the Spirt of God works with each and every one of us in a way that is different, uniquely suited to each. Apart from a few elemental commonalities like repentance and faith, the spiritual birth must ever remain a mystery; but one thing is certain. It is an open invitation. It is available to all who ask. As Jesus said to his disciples, so now he says to us, “receive the Holy Spirit.” The first decision of discipleship is the decision to invite God into our lives, and God comes to us by his Spirit.
The Decisions of Discipleship II: “He Told Me All I Ever Did.”
I have a friend named “B. D. When I was a student at Philo Junior High, Mr. D. taught 7th and 9th grade Common Learnings. He was not my teacher, but he knew me well enough to call me down by name, if he saw me late to class, or running in the hall.
I met Dr. D. again in 1969 I transferred to Carolina as a junior, and enrolled in the School of Education, where he was on the faculty. He taught several of my classes, and in the Spring of my senior year, he supervised my student teaching. I did well as a student teacher. The teacher with whom I served at Glenn Junior High was also the assistant principal, and after listening to me for a couple of days, he gave me the class, and treated me like a member of the faculty. Dr. D. was not so kind. Near the end of the semester he spent a day in my class. At the end of the day, he invited me to walk with to his car. When we were alone in the parking lot, he said, “Mr. Green, teachers are expected to dress like professionals. Are you aware you can see your blue boxer shorts through the fabric of your light yellow trousers?” It was then and there I decided to go into the Marines, and it gave me great satisfaction to share that decision with Dr. D.
Now the plot thickens. In 1979 I came back to Winston-Salem to pastor the Fries Memorial Congregation, and Dr. D. was already here. He was head of curriculum for the school system, and he called me up, and wanted me on his committee. He said that, before I said “No,” I should have lunch with him. When the day arrived, he picked me up in a ratty little Chevette that belonged to the county. We went to a now defunct Indonesian restaurant out near the junction of Peter’s Creek and Corporation parkways, and we ate curried shrimp. As we ate, Dr. D., starting with that day in the parking lot at Glenn Jr. High, and told me literally everything I had ever done. Not all of it was complimentary. I was wearing a really nice navy blue suit, but I felt like it was light yellow! After lunch Dr. D. dropped me at my house. Immediately, I got in my car and headed for a funeral in Kernersville. I was just about to the Old Greensboro Road Exit when I suddenly started itching all over. I just knew I had been bitten by fleas from that old county car. I turned around and head for home. Back at home, I found that I had not been bitten by fleas; I had broken out in hives, and from that day to this, I cannot eat shrimp. An allergist told me that, as we grow older our allergies change. A psychiatrists told me that it was not the shrimp that got me, it was Dr. D. “He told me everything I ever did.” Later, when Dr. D. and I had become good friends, he told me he simply typed me according to the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, and then repeated my profile to me.
Jesus did not know the Myers-Briggs. He knew people. We read in John 2:25 that no one had to tell Jesus what was in a human being, for he knew what was in a human being. I am sure Jesus was as observant as Sherlock Holmes, yet Jesus knew things about the woman at the well that are hard to attribute to the powers of observation and good guesses. He told her everything she ever did, and she regarded that as nothing short of miraculous. His knowledge of her turned her life upside down and inside out. She took a hard look at herself, and a close look at Jesus, and pretty soon she was telling all her friends and neighbors about him.
The truth is that, today, lots of people know more about us than we want to admit. For me our loss of privacy started with the deployment of star-69 by the phone company back in the 1990’s. I shall never forget my first use of those those three powerful little digits. My son was a senior in high school. He called home one night about thirty-minutes after his curfew, and said “Dad, I know you are going to punish me for this, but I am at a party, and I am not coming home.” I said, “O.K. suit yourself.” I then hung up the phone, waited five minutes, and hit star-69. Someone at the party answered, for I could hear the noise in the background. I said, “I am tired of the hub-bub coming from your house. I think I will just call the police.” I hung up, and about twenty minutes later my son walked through the door.
Today, we don’t need star-69 to keep up with our children, and grandchildren, we can just track them using their phones. Meantime the Department of Homeland Security is tracking us, and if they are not, half-a-dozen apps that we have given access to location services on our phones are!
Have you stopped to think how much privacy we have lost? When we surf the internet, every website knows we are there, and they know where we have been, too. That is why it serves up adds for the last item we searched, whether it is a diet supplement or a cordless drill. Or what about this. If you have cable-tv, the cable company knows everything you watch, and when you watch it. And if you store you music online, someone is making notes about the music you like. Thy know you play “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice,” a little, and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Johnny Cash a lot. What they may not know is that both songs are deeply spiritual. Likewise, if you own a Kindle, then Amazon knows what you read, and when you read it. I love my Kindle for the convenience, and for the shelf space it saves, but the omniscience of Amazon has started to make me uneasy. The other morning I woke up at 3:30, and decided to read for half-an-hour. I really wanted to read a new murder mystery I had purchased for $1.99, but I had read so many murder mysteries, in the weeks before, I feared that someone at Amazon would thinking I was studying up to commit a murder of my own, so I opened Elton Trueblood’s book, “Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish.”
And how many of you have an Amazon Echo? A friend recently told me that Alexa is always listening. He knows this because when he says,“Alexa, set an alarm for 6:30 a.m.,” Alexa says, “I have set an alarm for 6:30 a.m.” And when he says, “Alexa, what is the weather in Winston-Salem, North Carolina?”, she responds by telling him the time, and the temperature, and then she gives him a forecast.” He said, “If the Alexa is always listening for her name, so she can perform some task, then she is always listening, period. Big Brother is all around us, and he is a big sister, and her name is Alexa.”
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” That is more true than every before. Our lives are an open book, and unless we are willing to go completely off the grid, we might as well embrace it. Almost 2500 years ago, or so the story goes, a certain builder in Athens came to Socrates and said, “For such and such a sum, I can build you a house, and every room in it will be invisible from the street.” Socrates responded, “Double the sum, and build me a house with every room visible from the street.”
So, many people know lots of stuff about us, but is it the right stuff? Some people will look at us, and judge us for the color of our skin, or our age, or the clothes we wear or the car that we drive. This is what we call profiling. Everybody knows that profiling hurts the people who are profiled, but, sometimes it hurts the people who do the profiling, too. Several years ago, my dad hired a man to put a roof on his house because the man told dad that he not just a good roofer, but a “praise the Lord Christian.” My wife arrived just in time to stop my dad from giving that man a $29,000 check for an $8,000 roof. Anybody can say they are a praise the Lord Christian.
Of course, profiling is just the tip of the iceberg. Many people find out just a little about people, then rush to judgment. I shall never forget sitting next to an elderly woman at a Saturday matinee of “Miss Siagon.” “I am a New Yorker,” she said, “You sound like a visitor.” I told her I was from North Carolina, and she asked me where I was staying. I said, “Well I am on 7th Avenue, up above Columbia University.” She said, “That is a long way. How did you get to the theater?” I said, “I took the subway.” She lifted her nose a little higher and said, “I have lived in New York for 85 years, and I have never even seen the subway.” That was about the last thing she said to me.
One of the great tragedies of life is when people rush to judgement about other people. One of the great joys of life is having someone take the time to really know us. When he met the woman at the well, Jesus did not engage in profiling. Most Jews looked down on Samaritans, but Jesus once shocked a number of self-righteous Jews by making “a Good Samaritan,” the hero of his story about what it means to be a neighbor. Jesus did not profile the woman, nor did he rush to judgement. He saw the woman for who she was. He saw her as a woman with a string of five failed marriages, who had finally given up on marriage, and sold herself cheap to a man who was not her husband. In asking the woman at the well for a drink of water, Jesus stepped across the barrier that separated Jews from Samaritans. In offering the Samaritan woman “the living water,” or “Spirit,” that only he could supply, Jesus offered the woman whose life had become a series of one failure after another the chance to worship the One God in Spirit and in Truth, and thus changing her life forever, for the better.
A lot of preachers say a lot about sin. Their stock in trade is guilt, and they make it as personal as they can. Did you notice that Jesus did not even tell the woman what she was to do about the man who was not her husband. He simply mirrored her life back to her, and treated her with respect, and counted on her to know what to do.
We all have a need to be known. If you go to a new school, or take a new job, or join a new exercise class, or book club, or some other group, there are things about yourself you want members of that group to know. Of course, there are things about yourself you don’t want them to know, too. As the man said, “When we reach too far down insider ourselves, we dredge up that which is unworthy to be spoken of.” Never the less, when all is said is done, it is better to be known, than it is to be ignored, and some people pass through life, feeling as if they are being ignored. When this is so, nothing pleases them more than for someone to take the time to listen to their story. No wonder that, in his book, “Service Evangelism,” Richard Stoll Armstrong, at one time professor of Evangelism at Princeton Theological Seminary, said that the one service we could offer almost anyone was the service of listening to their story. He said that when we ave listened to someone’s story in detail, and know who they truly are, then and only then, do we have the right to share our own story, especially our faith story as it involves Jesus Christ.
The woman at the well attracted the people of her town out to hear Jesus because she said, “He told me all that I ever did.” The text says that the people of that town asked Jesus to stay with them, and he spent two more days in Samaria. Jesus ust have met and listened to lots of people, because by the time he left, the people were coming to the woman saying, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
We have been talking about the Decisions of Discipleship. The first decision of discipleship is to invite Jesus into our lives, and to recognize that, through the power of the Holy Spirit he is with us always. The second decision of discipleship, is to admit that he knows us better than we know ourselves. Once we admit that, we are open to the idea that the guidance he offers us in invaluable. Discipleship is aways a conversation. God looks into our hearts, and sees all our strengths, and our weaknesses, and then he invites us to move beyond them all, and become the person that God wants us to be, for what God wants for us, is far better than anything we can ask, think, or imagine for ourselves. I think one of the open secrets of happiness is knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that God knows all about us, and knowing all about us, loves us, and believes in us, and in our future. Jesus told the woman at the well all that she ever did. When he did, it changed her life, forever.
The Decisions of Discipleship III: “Stuff Happens!”
We are talking about the Decisions of Discipleship. In week one, we saw that we must be born from above. There is a physical birth, and there is a spiritual birth. Jesus said that that the birth may come to different people in different ways (“the wind blows where it wills)”, but the results are the same: the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son finds a place in us. In week two, we saw that the second decision of discipleship is to admit that through the Spirit, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Once we admit that God knows us better than we know ourselves, we are much more open to seeking God’s direction for our lives.
Everybody needs a little direction. When Elayne and I moved to from eastern North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky. By the time we hit Kentucky, I was bored with the four lane. I wanted to see a little country, so I took out a map and picked out a short-cut that would provide us with a more scenic route, and save us twenty or thirty miles. Unfortunately it was an old map. We needed to cross a river just before rejoining the main road, and when we came to it, the bridge was out. I looked at the river said a four letter word. Elayne looked at me and said four words. She said, “I told you so!” She was right. There was nothing we could do but retrace our steps.
Sometimes we have already settled in our minds that God wants us to do a thing; but we don’t want to do it, so we waste time in needless detours and delays. It may be that we are just disobedient, or it may be that we suffer from what Abraham Maslow called the Jonah Complex. Like the reluctant prophet, we have a fear of success. Fortunately, God sees potential in us that we do not see in ourselves. Jeremiah still saw himself as only a youth, but God called Jeremiah and appointed him to be a prophet to the nations. Abraham was an old man of 75, but God gave him a young man’s job. God called him to leave his country, and his kindred, and his father’s house, to go to a land that he would show him. Abraham obeyed and became the father of all who have faith!
In his book, “The Price of Everything,” Eduardo Porter says that, though we hate to assign value to a human life, in today’s world, when push comes to shove, young people are ordinarily worth more than old people. In today’s economy a young man or woman of Jeremiah’s age is worth c. 2.8 million of dollars. A old man or woman of Abraham’s age is worth about six hundred thousand dollars.* (*When the victims of 9/11 were assigned a portion of the funds allowed to their families, men in their 30’s were assigned a value of $2.8 million, while men over 70 were valued at $600,000. No doubt this was based on their earning potential. Families of 96 people refused to settle, went to court and received nearer $5,000,000. These victims were high wage earners Porter, Eduardo, “The Value of Everything,” location 707 in Kindle.) A story on NPR this morning (Sunday, March 26, 2017) said that the older we get, the harder it is to find work. It is harder for women than for men. One of the biggest offenders is a large tobacco company located right here in Winston-Salem. Yet, in God’s economy, one man, or one woman, of any age, can be of inestimable value, because one man, or one woman, plus God can accomplish things beyond anything we can ask, think, or imagine. It does not matter who you are, God can use you, and God is less interested in your ability than in your availability.
This morning we are talking about the third decision of discipleship. We must trust God whatever comes. The hymnists said:
I know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise;
Assured alone that life and death his mercy underlies.
I once asked a Moravian bishop his spiritual goal. He said, “I want to achieve the level of faith that Job had when he said of God,“Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
In 67 years of life I have been through a few difficult times. In 39 years of ministry, I have looked on and stood-by as many people, including members of my family, and this congregation have passed through even more difficult times. I have learned two things that have helped me keep perspective above all else. First, I have learned that most difficult times come and go. “No matter what we face, this too will pass.” Time does not lighten every burden and heal all wounds. Time does lighten most burdens and heal most wounds. Time is on our side. I have learned that difficult times come and go. The second thing I have learned is equally important. Forrest Gump is right, “Stuff Happens!” In this case “stuff” is a four letter word. For example, in John 9 we read how Jesus and his disciples passed by a man who was blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” In other words, some stuff just happens, but when it does, God can use it for God’s glory and for our good, because that which does not kill us makes us stronger.
Now don’t press this text too far! Sometimes people bring tragedy on themselves. Take the matter of sin. When we sin, it is not so much that we break the law of God, as that we break ourselves upon the law of God. Sin caries a built in penalty. Likewise, our actions come with consequences. If a man drives 100 miles an hour in the rain, on a public highway designed to carry traffic at 55 miles per hour, he should not be surprised when he crashes his car and someone is injured in the crash. Some tragedies people bring on themselves, and some tragedies people bring on others.
Other tragedies are beyond anyone’s control. I recently spoke with a mother in her nineties who lost a son in his early sixties to cancer. She said, “It is not right that he died before me. I would gladly have traded my life for his.” She meant that, but God would never permit us to make a deal like that. The Nazis asked Sophie to choose which of her children would live or die. The Nazis were monsters. God is not a monster. God is good. The Good God created the world for human beings, and God gave us our freedom, and he pronounced it all good. There is a randomness in the universe and we are part of it. God does not sit up in heaven and assign heart disease to some, and cancer to others, and diabetes, or strokes to others. Some stuff just happens. When it does, we do not sit around asking, “Why?” We know why. “Stuff happens!” We make the best we can of a bad situation. And we have never done our absolute best, until we invite trust God with our best and our worst. St. Paul was thinking of God’s best when he said:
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
In the text before us, the man who was blind from birth was a beggar. He was doing the best he could. He was a beggar, but he was blessed, because he attracted the attention of Jesus. Jesus then did two things for the man. First, did what many healers might have done. Jesus spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the mixture. In the time of Jesus, clay and spittle was often used to treat diseases of the eye. When I was a student Chaplain at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, I once used this story to convince a Pentecostal from the hills of Kentucky that God wanted to answer her prayers for healing with the help of a surgeon. Second, Jesus did more than the average healer might have done. Jesus told the man to, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” In sending the man to wash in the pool of Siloam, Jesus was asking him not just to trust, but to trust and obey. Often times we are stuck in some difficult because the only way out is obedience, and we simply don’t want to obey. How does the old song go, “Trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Sometimes, we even refuse to obey the inner voice that belongs to us. For instance, diagnosis is the first step toward cure, yet many of us ignore symptoms and refuse to go to a physician because we erroneously believe that as long as we don’t have a diagnosis we don’t have a problem.
People ask me if I believe in spiritual healing. I do. I believe in three kinds of healing.
First, I believe in the immediate healing like we see in the gospels. I have never seen anyone healed who was blind from birth, but just this week Jean Peak and I recalled a woman at Fries who was blind for a decade, then could see again. I was once healed of what I though was the flu, in a matter of hours; but that is another story.
Secondly, I believe in gradual healing. There is a motto over the gate of the French College of Surgeons, “The physician binds the patients wounds, but only God can heal.” God works in the cells for our healing, but God works in the situation, too. My professor of New Testament Robert Lyon once told our class the story of his open heart surgery. He had his surgery in the very early 1970’s when it was by no means common, and success was not nearly so certain as today. Bob learned on a Friday, he would have to have the open heart surgery. He and his wife Judy were scheduled for a weekend marriage retreat. They decided to go ahead and go. When they arrived at the site of the retreat, they were paired with another couple for the entire weekend. In the course of the weekend, they shared all kinds of things, but they were not allowed to reveal to one another issues like, the state of their physical health, or what they did for a living. On the final day of the retreat, there was a session of the open heart. It was o.k. to share anything, and Bob shared his need for heart surgery. When he did, the man he had gotten to know over the course of the retreat got out of his chair, came and knelt before Bob. He took Bob’s hands in his, and said, “Bob, I am a heart surgeon, and I believe that God put us together, so that I can do your surgery.” The man performed that surgery on Bob and Bob lived for many years after.
If this were a fairy tale, I could tell you that Bob and Judy lived happily ever after; but this is life, and a few years ago, Bob died. His death was a part of his life. In Genesis 6:3 we read that God never intended for our body of flesh to live forever. God gives us life, and, at some point, we must finally give it back. I think one of the major task of the second half of life is getting ready to die. This is easier for Christians than for non-Christians, because we Christians believe in a third kind of healing, the resurrection healing. We believe that, Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried; but on the third day he rose again from the dead. We believe that because Jesus lives, we shall live also. We believe that the day is coming when even death will be swallowed up in victory. Job could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him,” because Job could also say, “I know that my redeemer lives, and without my flesh, I shall see him.” This is much more certain for those of us who live in the light of Christ than it was for Job.
Now if you read this John chapter 9 carefully, you will see it not just about the healing of a man who was born blind. It is also about those religious leaders of Israel who were spiritually blind. They heard Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath, and they were more concerned that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, thus breaking one of their favorite rules, than that Jesus gave a man who had been born blind his first chance to see. Now our faith needs rules. They protect us from harm. More than that, our faith needs the sure knowledge that God cares for us even more than God cares for the rules. This what we call grace. Grace declares that no matter how broken we are, or how we have broken ourselves upon the rules, God can still fix us, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.