Lent 4 (22-03-2020)

Introduction to the Readings for This Day

1 Samuel 16:1-13:  It does not escape the reader that Samuel goes to Bethlehem (Beit Lechem – “House of Bread”) to find the leader who will guide Israel. David is the youngest son of Jesse and his choice is a surprise. Not yet old enough to go to battle, David the sheepherder is little more than a child. A child of Bethlehem who will rise to bring Israel to its greatest glory, because(?) … the Spirit of God is with him to bring about the purposes of God for the nation. Sound familiar?

John 9:1-41:This is a long selection of scripture as set in the Lectionary. There is a strong similarity with the story last week of the woman at the well, and not only because of its length.  As Jesus revealed himself to the woman as Messiah, so also Jesus tells the blind man that he is the son of man. The passage calls to mind the passage in Isaiah; “And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’  “Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.” (Is.6:9-10) Surely we are not blind, are we? 

Seeing as God Sees

The blind man in John’s gospel had been physically blind since birth, but there is yet another kind of blindness that keeps us from the fullness of God’s purpose for our lives. Blindness is not just about not seeing; rather it is about distorted seeing – seeing some things, but not others, a selective blindness. Our reading from 1 Samuel goes to the heart of this kind of darkness: the darkness of mistaken perception. Those too locked-in on outward appearances and on that which seems apparent are vulnerable to this blindness.

We live in an era of mass blindness. Advertising agencies and political parties hire people to make sure that we see only what they want us to see; to keep us blind to reality. Has there ever been a time when masses of people were so confused by outward appearance rather than seeing the true value of each  person?

Even beyond the obvious things, like the reaction to someone of wearing a hijab or burkah or to someone whose skin colour is not the same as their own, we are swayed by one’s clothes and  figure, make up and social standing, jewellery and smooth speech, hair style and one’s height, the balance of facial features and the style in which one travels.  All have played a part in the distorted valuation of humanity as long as records go back.

And right now, with a pandemic threatening to swallow our community, fear brings its own kind of blindness.  You can imagine the chaos if everyone went physically blind; well, the chaos we are seeing with people panic-buying comes from a kind of blindness; the blindness that comes from not seeing the whole picture, not knowing what will happen.  

What we think we know, i.e. what we can ‘see’, brings fear, but in knowing, it is possible to act rationally to combat it. The greater fear comes from what we cannot see; what we don’t know. If you are attacked, you will be afraid, but you are able to take a swing at the attacker. But if the attacker is invisible, you are completely vulnerable, and you won’t know what actions will be an effective defence.  Even though you don’t have access to a rational response, the fear keeps yelling at you: do something, do something! ..… So you buy toilet paper and keep away from Chinese restaurants.

None of us, and certainly not this preacher, can fully escape this kind of blindness. It pervades everything. Even when we rationally protest against it, nevertheless we are grabbed at the level of our emotions.  But this is the very blindness that is remedied by faith.  Faith doesn’t take away the fear – we will still be scared – but it allows us to follow the path of the Christ regardless.

Even Samuel, that great servant of God, found himself mistaking what was apparent for what was of value; i.e. what his selective blindness allowed him to see. The story fits well with the Pharisees in John’s gospel who were blind to the point in the healing of the blind man. On first reading we focus on the blind man who is given his sight, but the real blindness in the story is that of the Pharisees.  When we are so sure of our opinions and set in our understandings, we are sure to create darkness for ourselves. And if we stubbornly cling to our own understandings and allow our opinions to harden, we gradually close the door to light that comes from beyond us.

It is important to realise we all are vulnerable to this devastating spiritual malady. It is so easy to take something that is gospel truth, internalise it and mix it with personal preconceived ideas, and then shut the door to further insight, turning what was once truth into darkness.

This is exactly what happened to the Pharisees. (Don’t get caught up in the Pharisee-bashing propaganda you may have read in Scripture. Think of the most loyal, hard-working, biblically-literate, faithful church people you know; the Pharisees were like them.)  These good people revered the law of God, the law given by Moses, but mixed it with interpretation, personal preconceived ideas and cultural prejudice, and thereby blocked any new insight from God. Jesus in one of his more scathing attacks on twisted religion said that these folks were, “blind leaders of the blind” [Matt.15:14]. And they are still with us.The story of Samuel’s search for the one who would become king of Israel is set in circumstances that occurred over twenty-five hundred years ago. The lesson it teaches, however, is as fresh as the day God told Samuel what was missing in his perception.

The context for Samuel is grief over the fact that God was going to take the throne away from Saul. Samuel’s attachment to Saul, and his clinging to what he wanted instead of what God wanted, brought about a kind of darkness to his spirit. When God sent him to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint the next king of Israel, he  was in for a surprise.

As it turned out, outward appearances deceived Samuel. God had told Samuel that he would show him which son of Jesse would become king, and when Samuel laid eyes on the impressive Eliab, he thought, “This is the new king for sure!”

God’s response to Samuel is classic. It addresses a key factor in spiritual blindness. It is something every one of us can take to heart and use to do a quick analysis of our own way of looking at the world.

“… the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him;’ for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” [v.7]

Seven sons meet Samuel face to face. They all look to be fine specimens of humanity in Samuel’s eyes. But God sees deeper and will not entrust kingship to any of the seven. At Samuel’s insistence the youngest son of Jesse, a mere beardless teenager, is summoned in from herding the sheep. And God says to Samuel: “Stand up. Anoint him king. This is the one.”

There is a comical irony in the story which we read today about Samuel choosing a new king from among the sons of Jesse. Even though it is written: “No. See beyond his height and good looks, because I have rejected him. People notice the exterior facade but God looks on the heart,” the writer of 1st Samuel now inserts these words: “Now David was pink-cheeked, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome”.

There you have it. Our typical human valuation of a person intrudes, even in a passage where the emphasis is on God looking upon the heart, God seeing the soul and healthy integrity of a person, there is inserted a description of outward appearance, as though God’s choice needs to be defended and supported by human values.

We are called to value people as God values them. But do we ?

We often miss the significance of a person to God because they are not significant to the world around us. We miss the joy of a child’s capacity for play and laughter because we are engrossed in ‘important’ things, like getting her into the right kindergarten. We watch the evening news and read the newspaper, and somehow do not see the abject poverty and desperate conditions of much of the human family.  

Like Samuel, we look first on the exterior, which can lead to hasty judgments. We give scant attention to those who are dressed poorly, and fawn over those who are smartly dressed. We tend to shy away from those with facial disfigurement, or those uneven features commonly termed ugly, yet we shine up to those who are good looking.

In the Gospel reading today about the blind man whom Jesus healed, John says: “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.” We are all that person. We are all blind from birth. We do not see things right until the Spirit touches our lives and gives us healing.

What a wonderful thing it would be if this Lenten season could be a time when we might be so touched; to have our spirits opened up to see the life-changing, world-transforming power of the Divine Light. And as darkness is taken into this light, it becomes no darkness at all. 

As we understand and embrace this truth, we might even come close to the experience of the person in John’s gospel who, though born blind, was able to see again. It is a free gift, graciously offered to each of us. The blind man didn’t lose a thing (pause) except for his innocence as he became aware of the darkness of a religious community that could not see. Then, having gained his physical sight, he was given something even more valuable. Listen once again:

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. [vv.35-38]

The man who was blind from birth saw something for the very first time, but it wasn’t with his eyes.

May God give us the grace to so open our hearts and minds to the life-changing light of Christ that we too may renew our vision and worship the one who came to give us the light that can not be overcome by darkness.

A well-known preacher tells this story about himself:

On one occasion, when I was inducted into a new parish, I wondered why my predecessor had chosen one particular man to be church door steward, welcoming worshippers and giving out hymn books etc. This person dressed cleanly but poorly, he was extremely shy and, apart from his soft “Good morning”, accompanied by a timid smile, he barely put a sentence together in conversation. In my superficial first assessment I thought: “What a poor choice.” I looked on outward appearances.

In time I came to repent. My predecessor had chosen most wisely. This simple man was one of the most genuine Christians I have ever met. And I mean “ever!” Although he was a labourer working in a dirty industrial situation, although he bought “op shop’ clothes, although he lived in a rented room and never drove a car, although his health was dicey, although he was somewhat wizened in appearance, I came to see the utmost integrity and goodness. Accidentally, I also discovered that, financially, he was that congregation’s most generous giver. In time, I found out, too, (not from him!) how selflessly he had helped other people when they were in dire need, and asked for nothing in return.

Slowly I came to see a saint. I also discovered that his shy smile meant more to many people than an effusive welcome given by a self-confident person.  If I ever see as well as that humble man, I shall know I am beginning to see as God sees, and that Christ’s work on my vision has not been wasted.

An open, virtual door to the world