Harrowing Of Hell
March 30, 2014

Sabbath Keeping and Self-Examination

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

John 9:1-41

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We had a day of true Sabbath on this campus yesterday as nearly 20 people gathered for a Lenten Quiet Day.  From 10 till 5, we prayed together, ate together, meditated, daydreamed, studied, and rested….all in silence.  It was a lovely experience and offered a taste of what Sabbath rest was like in Jesus’ day.

Jesus appears briefly in this story about a blind man.  He violates the Sabbath by “working” when he kneads the mud, mixes it with his spit, and places it on the blind man’s eyes.  This Sabbath violation, while seemingly innocent, sets in motion the rest of the 41 verses in which the Pharisees cross examine this poor man who has just regained his sight.  The religious authorities, the Pharisees, say Jesus is not from God because he ignores the Sabbath.  Then, they get tripped up because if this man ignores the Sabbath, then he must be a sinner.  And if Jesus is a sinner, then how can he perform this miracle?

This seems like such a first century dilemma to our modern ears; ridiculous at best and even criminal that the ability to heal someone might be withheld due to something as trivial as religious observance of “rest.”  But that is part of understanding the socio-cultural context of the story. It was a very big deal to violate the Sabbath and this violation stands squarely in the middle of today’s text.

Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes this story as a one-act play in six scenes with a huge cast of characters.  We have the disciples, the neighbors, Pharisees, the man’s parents, Jesus, and the blind man. The two main characters are Jesus and the blind man who are both depicted as “sinners;”  the blind man a sinner for simply being born blind, and Jesus for breaking the Sabbath. Taylor sums up the first scene like this:  “There he is just minding his own tin-cup business when the light of the world comes along and opens his eyes, shoving him into the spotlight where people stand in line to question him.” Who?  How?  Where?  What? There was no “congratulations”, no “thank you, God!”  Only interrogation.

Not only that, but Jesus heals the man and runs.  The man is left alone to adapt to his new reality, face his community, come to grips with the miracle he has experienced, and deal with the barrage of questions from every direction.  He tries to return home, but cannot because he is too radically changed. When he was healed, he lost his identity.  His community accepted him as the disabled man who begged on the corner.  Now, they don’t know what to do with him.  In a moment that should be joy and celebration, he is instead brought before the religious authorities to defend Jesus, his healer, all because it occurred on the Sabbath.  Next, the man’s parents are questioned.  Quickly, their joy turns to fear as they realize the serious circumstances under which the healing happened; this Sabbath violation.

Then, once again, the man is questioned and declared a sinner only days after being blessed by Jesus.  He lost his family, his friends, and his place of worship. But, he gained his sight and he gained Jesus.  Homiletics professor Fred Craddock writes that God’s favor more often leads into than away from difficulties.  We have seen this throughout scripture.  God calls Noah, Moses, Samuel… and their lives become fraught with challenge and strife.  As Craddock puts it, “A relationship to God does not remove one from but often places one in the line of fire.” This is an apt description.

In a way, this story mirrors our own experience.  Jesus has come and changed us.

Jesus called into existence the Kingdom of God and we are challenged to live into that divine reality in his absence.  As we wait for Christ to come again, we have to make sense of our lives and decide how we will live as Christians in this world. The blind man was utterly transformed and his old life shattered.  Now, he must decide how to tell his story, what he will say about his healing, and all in the face of enormous opposition.  Throughout the narrative, his answers to the barrage of questions move from timid one-liners to eloquent conviction.  At first, he calls Jesus, “a man,” then “a prophet,” and finally “a man from God.”  As he sees Jesus more clearly, his sight keeps improving (x2).

The hardest part of this story is that we want to identify with the blind man when in fact we are the Pharisees.  To quote Taylor, “We are consummate insiders — fully initiated, law-abiding, pledge-paying, creed-saying members of the congregation of the faithful – or in shorthand, Pharisees, who can work up our own anxiety about whether or not a mighty act should be ascribed to God.”  Many, many amazing things happen in the world that may or may not have anything to do with the power of God. Cancer is cured.  A survivor is pulled from the mudslide.  An accident is avoided.  When incredible, even miraculous things happen, it might be human imagination or suggestion, or possibly even deception.

What if something is NOT GOD but we believe that it is?  Or what if it IS GOD and we believe it is not?  What if we are so closed minded and rigid in our thinking that we can’t see God operating in our midst?  The Pharisees had a closed system and that system served to close Jesus out and closed them in.  If God did a mighty act right in front of us, would we be open enough to see?

The spiritual disciplines explored in the text are Sabbath keeping and self-examination.  Sabbath keeping is looking into your soul and asking what you need to stay tuned to God.   Is it a dedicated day once a week with no technology….no computer, no email, no cellphone?  Is it commitment to attending church every Sunday?  Is it a weekly rhythm of self-care — focusing on study or relaxation? If it seems completely out of reach, then start small.  Choose something that is realistic and make it a habit.

In Doyt’s sermon on Ash Wednesday, he asked us to focus on four things this Lent:  prayer, fasting, reading scripture, and self-examination.  The blind man in this story was forced into some serious self-examination.  Everything he knew was turned upside down in an instant when he was healed and consequently lost his identity.  What is the biggest problem you are facing right now?  What if God did a mighty act in your life and changed everything.  Would you have eyes to see what was happening?  Would you be a skeptic like the Pharisees or would your heart be open enough to truly see God’s hand at work?

Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Willing To Believe.” Christian Century 113.8 (1996): 259. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Craddock, Fred B. “Coping In Jesus’ Absence.” Christian Century 107.9 (1990): 274. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.