Monday, April 3, 2006

A Living Parable

Let me tell you a little bit about what I do for a living: I play with computers, and with words, and with language. I do! I work for a company that is trying to get computers to understand language. And I have a secret to tell you: in spite of what you might have read in the newspapers or seen on television, computers are never going to be able to understand what you say to them. I’m serious. Computers don’t understand anything. Their programmers build in their own understanding of what they anticipate you will say. If you say something that the programmer did not expect, the computer is completely befuddled. The reason that this is a secret is that if it gets out, I’ll lose my job – I might have to fall back on preaching… or something…

Now we’re not going to talk about computers this morning – but we are going to talk a little bit about words. And one of the things that you learn when playing with words is that not all words are created equal. Some words have very little meaning and don’t make a lot of difference. Other words can make a critical difference to what we mean. Some words carry plenty of emotion; others, none at all. Some words are particularly weak; while others are very strong.

I’d like to start this morning by considering one of the most powerful words in the English language. With this word (a question word), a four-year-old can render a full grown man helpless. If you are a parent, or you’ve ever spent a lot of time around four-year-olds, I expect that you will know the word that I am thinking of; can anyone tell me what that word is? That’s right: the word is “why?” Here’s an example conversation:

“Get on your coat.” – “Why?”

“We’re going out.” – “Why?”

“We’re going to visit grandma.” – “Why?”

“She likes it when we visit.” – “Why?”

“Well, she can be lonely.” – “Why?”

“Well… well… do you have your coat on yet?”

But the question “why?” and questions in general are not just a power-trips for four-year-olds, though. Questions are a life-skill, and knowing which questions to ask is a valuable asset. As Kipling put it:

I keep six honest serving-men / (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When / And How and Where and Who.

We should never be afraid to ask questions, and we should never be afraid of questions being asked. Asking questions and expecting answers is exceedingly healthy! In fact, questions are an indication of the image of God in our hearts. Neither animals nor computers ask questions (ok, computers can be programmed to look like they are asking questions, but they won’t understand the answers). Questions are a way that we reach out for that spiritual potential that is part of our image-of-God nature; to explore the unknown in search of a better understanding of our creation and ourselves. We’re going to ask some questions this morning. In particular, I’d like to remind you of a story in which the disciples asked Jesus the question “why?” But before we proceed, let’s pray…

Our story this morning, which can be found in John chapter nine, starts one day when Jesus and his disciples were visiting the temple in Jerusalem. On his way off the temple grounds, Jesus and his disciples walked past a beggar. Asking for money, there, just outside the temple, was a blind man. Now the Bible doesn’t explain how they knew, but the disciples seemed to know that this man was born blind.

Now when we’re exposed to suffering, it is only human to ask “why?” Have you ever asked God “why me?” When one’s life falls apart, it is a natural question to ask! But here the disciples are asking the similar, compassionate question: instead of “why me?” they are asking “why him?” Why was this man born blind?

Like most people that ask good questions, the disciples already had ideas as to what the answer might be. One of them wondered out loud, “Is he blind because he sinned?” Now it would seem a little strange if the man was being punished in such a severe manner for sins committed before he was even born! But imagine for a moment how the blind man feels as the disciples are offering up these ideas in front of him. After all, he’s blind, not deaf! He’s been poor, and blind, and suffering for many years, certainly more than thirteen, likely more than twenty. And these strangers add insult to injury by suggesting that his suffering is his own fault! He likely knows that he isn’t perfect, but he also senses that their answer just isn’t right.

Another one of the disciples, perhaps sensing the difficulty in this position, had an alternative idea: perhaps the man was born blind because of the sins of his parents. Of course, this idea also has some difficulties. In Jesus time, there were debates raging as to whether Deuteronomy [5:9] took precedence over Jeremiah [31:30] or vice versa. In Deuteronomy, it says that God will indeed punish the children for the sins of their parents. On the other hand, Jeremiah makes it clear that one day “everyone will die for his own sin.”

But we should be grateful that the Bible doesn’t just leave us with the disciples’ ideas about why this man was born blind. Even those closest to Jesus can have crazy ideas sometimes. Even those who walk with him daily can interpret life in mixed up ways. So I’m glad that the Bible records Jesus’ response to the question “why?” in order to set his disciples straight. And this is it: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” What an awesome answer to a difficult question: “… so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

This morning, I’d like to suggest to you that this is the reason for whatever difficulties that you might be going through, too. I’ll grant that I don’t know the folks here; I haven’t walked in your shoes; I can’t and I won’t claim to understand how difficult life might be for you. But I am still going to be so bold as to claim that the reason that you are going through these difficulties is precisely “so that the work of God might be displayed in your life!” God is the master of bringing victory out of tragedy.

But Jesus proves his words in his actions. What did he do? He spat on the dusty trail. He bent down, and made some mud out of the dust there on the ground, and put the mud on the blind man’s eyes. Then, he told the blind man to get up and to go down the street, around the corner, past the market, to turn right at the synagogue, and then wash the mud off in the pool of Siloam.

Now this is truly remarkable. Did Jesus need the mud to heal the blind man? Of course not. Did Jesus need the pool of Siloam to effect the healing of this man’s eyes? Of course not! So why?! Why on earth would Jesus submit this poor handicapped man to such indignity? First, the blind man likely found the discussion of the disciples to be rude that day. Second, he likely wasn’t altogether taken by the application of spit-mud on his eyes. On a hot and dry day, the source of the mud couldn’t have been lost on a man whose ears have taken on the role of critical sense. What’s more, given that the Pharisees taught that all suffering was the result of sin, there might have been people in those days who wouldn’t think it inappropriate to spit on such a beggar. I wonder if the blind man had ever been spat upon. I wonder if he winced as he heard Jesus spitting. I wonder whether there was revulsion as the mud from this process was applied.

Finally, why ask the blind man to take a long walk through a crowd on a hot day with mud on his eyes when it wasn’t necessary? Jesus didn’t even send one of his disciples to give the poor man a hand! Usually, when a blind man walks around, people can tell by looking at his eyes that he was blind. And so if they bumped into him in a crowd, they are likely to be apologetic. But when someone is walking around with mud on their eyes? I’m sure that there were whispers… And I’m sure that there were giggles… And I’m sure that there were doubts. You can imagine what the blind man is thinking after he turns that first corner: on the one hand, what he has been told to do is wild… and why should he have any expectation of it accomplishing anything?

After all, there was no promise of healing in our story; from the text found in John chapter nine there is only the suggestion that Jesus was overheard telling his disciples that “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” But I think that there was more than that – something between the lines of our text this morning. There must have been something – something else – that kept him going all the way to the pool! But the Bible doesn’t make it clear what it is! I’m guessing that the special ingredient was in the voice… or perhaps in the touch of Jesus. Something that made the blind man decide that, as strange as the experience was, here was someone he could trust. You see, the what simply isn’t enough to get us all the way to complete health. We need to focus on the who. We need to focus on our Master, our Great Physician. In the next chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus says that his sheep know his voice. There is something special about Jesus voice, and it is vital that we keep our ears attuned to it.

Too often, folks in churches get caught up in the what. We know what we’ve been told to do, and so we do it. But we’re surprised that our children aren’t particularly inclined to follow us in obedience. And we’re surprised that our neighbors aren’t particularly drawn toward the “light of the world” that we’re supposed to be. But the mistake that we make is that we’ve lost the echo of our master’s voice in our heads. If you’ve ever been in love, you may have had the experience of hearing the voice of your beloved bouncing around in your head long after you have talked together. Is our love of Jesus such that his voice, his words stay with us throughout the day? Are we too caught up with the what that we’ve forgotten the who? Dear friends, it is only the who: Jesus Christ himself that can keep our children in our churches. And it is only Jesus Christ who can draw our neighbors to the truth.

But you know, all that still doesn’t explain the puzzling way in which Jesus healed the blind man. Of course, we know from experience that sometimes healing doesn’t always take the form that we would prefer.

Let me tell you two stories from my own life to illustrate this principle. When my oldest daughter was four, she once came to me with a sore foot. She absolutely, positively refused to let me touch her foot, but she did see the sense in at least letting me look at it if I was going to help her at all… And lo and behold, her father knew immediately what the problem was! The dear little angel, who loved to discard her shoes, had a splinter stuck in the bottom of her foot. But when I described to Grace the appropriate remedy for such a problem, my daughter started to shake her head! Under no circumstances was she going to let me do what we all know is the best and most effective treatment for her problem. Sometimes I wonder if we are like that: having a heavenly Father who is ready, willing and able to help us; and we aren’t willing to let him get near us….

At about the same age, Grace once came to me with a broken toy. “Can you fix it, Daddy?” she asked sweetly. I took the toy and gave it a thorough inspection, and after careful consideration, I replied: “yes, I can!” And I stood up. And I walked out of the room. And… Grace was very angry. Why was she angry? Two reasons: first, she thought that I could fix the toy with my fingers; second, I didn’t tell her that I was going to get the necessary tool. Sometimes I wonder if we are like that, too: we get impatient with our Heavenly Father because we don’t appreciate that the quickest, surest path to fixing us is also one that we don’t at all understand, the one that he is asking us to trust him on….

So even though the form that healing takes can sometimes surprise us, I strongly suspect that Jesus didn’t ask the blind man to go through an obstacle course for him at all. I think that Jesus did this for us! That’s right: the blind man didn’t need the mud or the hike to the pool to be healed. But we need to see them, we need to meditate on them, and to understand them. Jesus was giving us a “living parable” – he was creating an illustration for us: the commands of Jesus can be relatively easy to understand. But obedience is often quite inconvenient!

Folks across the nation are wandering away from God this morning not so much because they don’t believe in Jesus; not so much because they don’t understand the words of Jesus; not so much because they don’t acknowledge the wisdom of Jesus. Folks are walking away from God this morning because obedience is inconvenient! Sleeping in; going to the gym; hanging out with friends are so much more comfortable… It is as if we demand healing served on a platter. We just aren’t willing to suffer more in order to suffer less!

I expect that most people in our churches are in between the temple and the pool in at least some aspect of their lives. The issue isn’t physical blindness. Rather, it may be selfishness, it may be greediness, or it may be insensitivity. These things aren’t just sins, they are also handicaps – things that true followers of Christ would love to be delivered from. And indeed, aren’t these heart-issues ultimately that much more important than just body-issues? But here we are, between the temple and the pool: we've heard the voice of Jesus, and we are trying to work out what it must mean to be obedient to him. But the inconvenience of the journey might be taking its toll, and the feeling that Jesus is now far away makes it even more difficult. But for all of us, the two critical ingredients are trusting in the voice of Jesus and obedience to that voice. Of course, we should also be careful not to judge what the Lord is doing in other's lives. Every person is unique and consequently ever person's road to healing is also unique. Let’s not be judgmental if someone else’s journey may look very strange to us.

But eventually, in order to make the illustration complete, the blind man in our story finally arrives at the pool of Siloam, and when he washes the mud from his eyes, for the first time in his life he opens his eyes and can see everything! If they made a movie of this, this part would be accompanied with amazing music, and shot in slow-motion! The light that suddenly flooded into this man’s eyes, amazing as it was, is just a symbol of the Light of the World that needs to come and illuminate every aspect of our lives.

But what do we say, friends, to people who continue to suffer? What do we say to those who don’t receive miracles of deliverance? As Jesus himself said (Luke 4): “there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when … there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

Can God’s work still be displayed in the lives of those who end up suffering? Can God still be at work in the lives of those who end up dying? Of course He can! In fact, His strength is made perfect, and demonstrated perfectly, in weakness. The healing that He demonstrates in Jesus’ miracles is not intended to be a promise that all of our problems will be taken away. Rather, it is a demonstration that He has the power to help us where it really counts. Jesus doesn’t heal every pair of blind eyes in Israel; he doesn’t cast out every demon; he doesn’t raise all beloved brothers from the dead. These are just pictures; pictures for us; pictures of the power that God wants to reveal in us. In our bodies? Nope. Sorry about that. Our bodies are outwardly wasting away. But inwardly we are being renewed day by day. It is in our hearts that God wants miracles to happen. And this is where God wants his work to be displayed.

You see, the real question isn’t “in whom does God want to display his power?” The answer to that question is simple: he wants to display his power in everyone. Every human being ever born is encumbered with the handicapping shackles of sin that limit us much more than a man’s blindness. The question is not “in whom does God want to display his power?” Rather, it is “to whom does God wants to display his power?” Contrary to popular Christian inclination, God isn’t that interested in demonstrating his power to the skeptics. Really! The skeptics are those to whom Abraham would say “if they didn’t listen to the words of the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!”

So if not to the skeptics, to whom? Well, we have a hint, don’t we, in Hebrews chapter twelve. There, we read: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith!” These are the witnesses to whom God wishes to display his power, aren’t they? In our weak and stumbling state, we barely recognize, let alone appreciate, the work of God in the world. But those who have been sanctified by heaven are not only there to cheer us on, but to “Oh” and “Ah” appropriately at the work of God as it is displayed in our hearts this morning. Indeed, among these witnesses are those cataloged in Hebrews chapter eleven. There, we read both of those who experienced a miraculous deliverance, and those who went to the grave with the expectation of a better resurrection. But what did they all have in common? They had faith. And it is faith in Jesus this morning that gives us entrance into their company, that gives us the privilege of joining the audience applauding God’s power at work in the world today.

Who is your audience this morning? Hebrews 12 suggests a cloud of witnesses, watching our progress through life. Did you win that game? I don’t think they care too much about that. The real question is did you hold your temper when you were cross-checked. Did you land that account? The saints in the cosmic galleries aren’t so much interested in that as they are interested in whether or not you stuck to the truth in order land it. Suddenly what we accomplish isn’t nearly as important as how we accomplished it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the only people in the stands were the people cheering for you? Wouldn’t it be freeing if the thing that they were cheering for was the work of God displayed in your life? And wouldn’t it be healing if all your sins, all your hurts, all your circumstances, and all your pain were an opportunity for God to display his work in your life? It could be, you know. It could be. But the secret ingredient, the magic that turns trials into opportunities, is the voice of Jesus. Listen! And do what he tells you to do. Sometimes it might not altogether make sense to you. Sometimes it might take longer than you think it should. But the freedom and the vision that he offers at the end of the road is more than worth it. Pay attention to the Master’s voice this morning.