Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)
March 22, 2020
Text: John 9:1-41
“(W)ho sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2; ESV). Who sinned? Must have been somebody, because we know that what goes around comes around, poetic justice, karma, divine retribution. Where tragedy or misfortune strike, there must be some one-to-one correspondence between the sinner and what he has coming. That is the way they thought in the ancient world, and especially among the Jews, so it was a natural question on the part of the disciples. As a matter of fact, we’re asking that question in some ways regarding this pandemic. Who sinned, China or the United States… or Italy, or some other country, that God is visiting this pestilence upon us? There are some irresponsible preachers who, in times of tragedy, recklessly give answer to just that question as though they know God’s hidden will and can identify who the sinners are, excluding themselves, of course. They need to silence themselves. They are false prophets. They have not been sent by God.
Even apart from the question of divine justice, we love to ask the question, “Who sinned?” in such a way that we may assign blame. Even secularists employ this tactic. Who sinned, President Trump and the Republicans, or the Democrats who oppose the president? Your answer to that question may just expose who you’ve adopted as your idol, your god, and who you’ve identified as the devil. Who sinned? The guy who sneezed without covering his mouth and nose, or the person advocating the cancelling of all of life for weeks, or even months, on end so we can protect ourselves. We’re anxious. We’re fearful. And anxiety and fear so easily mutate into anger. And anger needs an outlet, to be unleashed, someone or something to punish. So who sinned? Let’s get ‘em!
But none of that is helpful. Nor is it right. Who sinned, this man, or his parents? You’ve got it all wrong, says Jesus. Oh, of course they are sinners, He’s not denying that. As are we all. And of course, bad things happen in the world because this is a fallen world due to the sin of our first parents, and our own sin. But it isn’t that God foresaw that this man would do some terrible thing, and so made him born blind. Or his parents did some terrible thing, so God gave them a blind child. No. This blindness, and this pandemic, and every other terrible thing in the world, is visited upon us, as Jesus says in our text, “that the works of God might be displayed” (v. 3). In other words, God has His purposes. We know the Promise as St. Paul writes it in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” What is the good? What is God’s purpose? To save you! Oftentimes… most of the time… we can’t say exactly why this or that particular bad thing happened. It’s a fool’s errand to try. You cannot know God’s hidden will. But we can say this: By this terrible thing (blindness, pandemic, whatever it is) God is bringing me to the end of myself. He’s calling me to repentance, crucifying my sinful nature, brining me to the realization that I’m utterly helpless, that I have no resources within myself to save myself. And it is at just such a point that He sends the preaching of the Gospel… Christ, His death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, the resurrection of the body on the Last Day… and this preaching drives me to Christ, to put all my hope and trust in Christ alone.
You know what that is? That is a miraculous opening of your eyes, just as He opened the eyes of the blind man in our Holy Gospel. It is amazing. We think we see so clearly that we can assign blame, identify the real sinners, avoid the dangers, lead everyone else to salvation by following our example. Turns out we’re just blind leaders of the blind! What Jesus does for us in His Law is identify our true state: Utter blindness. And then, by the Gospel, He creates us anew.
What’s with the spit and the mud rubbed into the man’s eyes? Gross! Social distancing, Jesus! Yeah, but this spit is from the mouth of the God who called creation into existence out of nothing. This mud is made with the dust from which our father Adam was formed. Jesus is re-creating the man’s eyes. They were blind and dark in sin and death. But at Jesus’ Word and touch, they are opened to righteousness and life. Then, go to the pool of Siloam and wash. Where does Jesus create us anew? At the pool! At the font! Sins forgiven, washed clean, healed and whole, God’s own child! The same miracle done for the man is done for us. Born spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God, at the font, Jesus opens our eyes so that we believe in Him (eyes on Him!), gives us new life, His Life, and restores us to the Father by forgiving our sins.
He can do this because, for all of us blind sinners, our Lord took up our flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary… true human eyes with pupils and irises and optic nerves, eyes that took in all the evils of life in this fallen world, eyes that wept, eyes that winced in pain, eyes just like our eyes… and He closed them in the blindness of death on the cross. Only to open them up again on the Third Day. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Bodily. And He’ll raise you, bodily, when He comes again in glory. Blindness, coronavirus, anxiety, fear, and every affliction… sin itself, and sin’s wages, death… they all come to an end in Christ. Jesus came to make all things new.
So who sinned? Wrong question. We’re all sinners. By our sins, we all deserve blindness and coronavirus. Jesus came to atone for our sins and bring us forgiveness and healing and life. A second question, which is similar in dealing with the problem of evil: Is this affliction a scourge of Satan or a chastening by the Lord? It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Satan loves that we’re suffering, and you can bet his wicked fingerprints are all over this thing. Think of his goals in this: To rob us of faith in Christ. To rob us of the Word. To prevent Word and Sacrament ministry, foment fear and anxiety, separate us from our fellow believers and family and friends, turn us against one another. To cause as much death and destruction and chaos as possible. Yes, that is the work of the evil one. But God allowed it. Satan is not a god. He is only a creature. He cannot overpower God. And he is, in this way, as Luther reminds us, God’s devil. Which is to say, God can turn the great evil Satan works upon us for our good, which is exactly what He promises to do.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the pandemic and all the fallout from it. Evil, no question. I wish it hadn’t happened to us. But it did. So now we must ask, how is God working this so that, as Jesus says, “the works of God might be displayed”? So that He can show us that He is bringing salvation, healing and wholeness, and making all things new? Think of the things to which God has opened our eyes by this trial. First, our own mortality. We’re always convincing ourselves that we’re strong, that we’re invincible. It’s the old sin of Adam and Eve. We think we’re gods! Turns out, we’re not. We’re fragile. We’re vulnerable. We’re weak. We’re dying. That’s just where God needs us so we’re ready to hear the Gospel, that He is God, God for us. And He has saved us by sending His Son, Christ Jesus. This pandemic shows us that we’re at the mercy of forces beyond our control, but God shows us in the Gospel that even more so are we at the mercy of a God who controls all things for our good.
Second, in all of this, we Christians have been called to recognized vividly the truth that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We know, for the first time in most of our lives, what it is to not have access to the Church and preaching and Sacraments and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. That’s why you’re here! We’re craving it. We’re starving for it. We realize, now, that we’ve taken it for granted for so long. God has opened our eyes to just how precious His Word and gifts are. We need His means of grace, the medicine of immortality. We need it like oxygen, like water. It is life, because it brings us Jesus and His salvation.
Third, all the other stuff of this life… is not life. Our eyes have been opened to the things that really matter, and to just how much we can live without. The eyes of our fallen flesh look around at a time like this and see only the threat of scarcity and the fear that if we don’t hoard up all kinds of things, God will suddenly stop giving us our daily bread. As though our Father in heaven can’t be trusted. As though He’ll stop caring and providing for us. Jesus opens our eyes by the Word to see that, with or without, in hunger and in plenty (cf. Phil. 4:11-13), God will provide for us each day, whatever we need for this body and life. He has in the past, up until this very moment. He won’t forsake us now. Trust Him. You’re safe in Him.
Buy what you need, of course. Be wise. Plan ahead. But don’t hoard. For this is another thing to which our Lord has opened our eyes. The need of our neighbor. Knowing that God will provide for us, we also see that God provides for our neighbor through us. Make sure your neighbor has what he needs. “Do not neglect to do good,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:15). Give an offering. Even in these times when we’re away from the Church. It’s hard to say that as a pastor, but I’ve been very direct with our members about this, and I know a number of you who are watching are from other congregations, so let me say this on behalf of your pastor: Please send in your offerings to your congregation. We have a responsibility in these times to provide for the preservation of our Church and the preaching of the Gospel. And give alms. That is a word we need to reclaim. Alms, aid to those in need. Money, food, other necessities to those who lack. A number of people will be laid off or lose their jobs entirely in this. It’s time for Christians to be God’s merciful hands in the world. Let’s take care of one another.
And here’s the thing: Don’t do this so God will reward you. There is no place for merit in this. That is the old blindness. Do this because God has already saved you and promised to provide for all your needs and sustain you in Christ Jesus. Sacrificial giving is an exercise of faith that God will provide. It is a concrete act of prayer. It is a concrete expression of love.
Who sinned? We all did. Who saves us? Jesus does. Jesus, and Jesus alone. He opens our eyes. We look only to Him. Even in bitter times like this. Don’t lose focus by blaming others or casting aspersions. Don’t look to yourself and your own resources for one minute to get you out of this pinch. Look to Jesus. Eyes on Jesus. He who died for us, lives for us. He’ll never let us down. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.